Chiasmus can be used for wit or wisdom to make a point in a fresh, clever, memorable way
The term chiasmus comes from the Greek chiasma a cross-shaped mark. This is a form of speech where the word order of the subject of the first part of the sentence is reversed to give a completely different meaning. By reversing common phrases or ideas it makes us look afresh at the new words and there is great satisfaction in the neat ideas that can be expressed this way.
Chiasmus in oratory
One of the most famous examples was in John F Kennedy’s inaugural address in 1961 when he said “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
He also said “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” a sentiment that I wish more political leaders shared.
Another politician and great orator who made frequent use of chiasmus was unsurprisingly Winston Churchill. Possibly his more famous chiastic quote was made in a 1942 speech at the Mansion House just after Rommel’s victory at Alamein.
“Now is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Can’t you just hear his voice when you read that, the repetition making every word more valuable?
Chiasmus in entertainment
“It’s not the men in your life that matters, it’s the life in your men!”
“It is better to be looked over than overlooked.”
“A hard man is good to find.”
This is an example of chiasmus using the reversed order of a well known phrase without needing to repeat the original phrase. These examples can be especially pleasing as there is the extra satisfaction of working out the connection to the source.
Another in this vein is “A hangover is the wrath of grapes.” There seem to be various claims to be the first to say this but I hope it is the wonderful humorist Dorothy Parker.
And, if you come across any new ones or old favourites, please let me know.
Winston Churchill: By United Nations Information Office, New York [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons