Montreal's senior monthly since 1986

Feb '10


X marks the spot in chiasmus

“People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.” – Bill Clinton

“A lawyer starts life giving $500 worth of law for $5, and ends giving $5 worth for $500.” – 19th century U.S. Attorney-General Benjamin H. Brewster

Welcome to the symmetrical world of chiasmus. Chiasmus is defined by The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms as “a figure of speech by which the order of the terms in the first of two parallel clauses is reversed in the second. This may involve a repetition of the same words (“Pleasure’s a sin, and sometimes sin’s a pleasure”– Byron) or just a reversed parallel between two corresponding pairs of ideas.”

Chiasmus (pronounced kye-AZ-muss) is named after the Greek letter chi (x), indicating a “crisscross” arrangement of terms. One can literally mark many chiastic expressions with an X. Take Mae West’s contribution to this genre:

It’s not the men in my life

It’s the life in my men

Certain chiastic statements such as “all for one and one for all,” and the shortened Cicero quote “eat to live, not live to eat” are word palindromes. The rhetorical elements of chiasmus are always rendered in palindromic order, seen in the above Mae West quote. In Genesis 9:6, we have a longer structure: “whoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed.”

Chiastic statements appear to reveal hidden truths and are thus popular in Biblical writing: Aside from the Genesis 9:6 quote, other examples include “there is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18) and “many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first” (Matthew 19:30). According to The Literary Guide to the Bible edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, chiastic structure is built into Biblical Hebrew.

Physicist Nils Bohr said: “There are trivial truths and great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.” Rhetorical devices are useful in exhibiting Bohr’s point. Oxymoron is sometimes erroneously defined as a contradictory expression. A true oxymoron, such as Shakespeare’s “sweet sorrow,” or Milton’s “darkness visible” is a rhetorical device, where the seeming contradiction involves a point. Chiastic transpositions can be similarly employed. Take the French proverb “love makes time pass, time makes love pass,” or Ernest Hemingway’s fondness for asking people which of these two statements they preferred: “Man can be destroyed but not defeated,” or “Man can be defeated but not destroyed.”

Chiasmus can also be employed as a form of wit. Humour that uses incongruity often uses chiasmus, especially with implied statements. Oscar Wilde was a master at this type of transposition. Some of his classics are: “work is the curse of the drinking class” (parodying “drink is the curse of the working class”) and “life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” and “the English have a miraculous power of turning wine into water.”

Other implied chiastic quips include Mae West’s “a hard man is good to find” and “a waist is a terrible thing to mind,” Groucho Marx’s “time wounds all heels,” and the amphibian philosopher Kermit the Frog’s observation that “time’s fun when you’re having flies.”

This type of transpositional humour can also be used in defining matters. A hangover has been described as “the wrath of grapes” and a critic who provides a harsh opening night review is said to have “stoned the first cast.”

The rhetorical elements need not even be whole words. Two of my favourite examples of chiasmus are of this genre. There’s Randy Hanzlick’s song, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than have a frontal lobotomy” and an Edwardian toast that went “Here’s champagne for our real friends and real pain for our sham friends.”

It is only appropriate that Bill Clinton should utter a great chiasmus, as he was the subject of one in a contest held some years ago by The Washington Post. In reference to the Monica Lewinsky debacle, here was the winning entry:

Bill Clinton before: “I don’t know how I can make this any clearer.”

Bill Clinton after: “I don’t know how I can clear this with my Maker.”

Howard Richler's latest book is Can I Have a Word With You? He can be reached at



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