Chiasmus (key-AZ-mus) is a figure of speech in which the order of particular words in the first of two parallel phrases is reversed in the second. Chiasmus was most popular in 18th century English poetry but is also found in other eras such as the 1960's with JFK's "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

The term chiasmus comes from the Greek word khiasmos meaning "crossing", which came from chiazein. Chizein means "to mark with a chi, X", indicating the crossed arrangement of terms. To determine whether a phrase is chiastic, it should be laid out in parallel like this and see if an X can be drawn. If not, the phrase is probably not chiastic.:

"You must master your rage          
              \        /
               \      /
                \    /
                 \  /
                 /  \
                /    \
               /      \
              /        \
 before your rage masters you."  
(a quote from the Mystery Men character "The Sphinx" speaking to "Mr. Furious")

"Never let a fool kiss you
                \  /
                /  \ 
        or a kiss fool you."
(a quote from a chiastic expert, Dr. Mardy Grothe)

   "To finish first, 
            \  /
            /  \
one must first finish."
"Quitters never win. Winners never quit. But those who never win and never quit are idiots."

Chiasmus is a mechanic often used in joke punchlines. For instance:

Q: What's the difference between a teacher and a conductor?
A: One teaches you to train the mind, the other to mind the train.

Actually, the above examples in which the words are repeated are more specifically antimetaboles. A chiasmus doesn't need to repeat the same words. For example, "By day the frolic, and the dance by night" - Samuel Johnson, "The Vanity of Human Wishes" is a chiasmus, but not an antimetabole.

The definition I know chiasmus by is "Reversal of grammatical structures in successive phrases or clauses (but without the repetition of words)", taken from . If this is wrong, someone please tell me.

Some examples:

"Until you can balance a tack hammer on your head, you cannot head into a balanced attack" -- Mystery Men

"I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy" --Randy Hanzlick

"I wish champagne to my real friends, and real pain to my sham friends" --Edwardian Toast

"It's not the men in my life, but the life in my men" -- Mae West

"How strange it is that we of the present day are constantly praising that past age which our fathers abused, and as constantly abusing that present age, which our children will praise." --Charles Caleb Colton

"Lust is what makes you keep wanting to do it, even when you have no desire to be with each other. Love is what makes you keep wanting to be with each other, even when you have no desire to do it." -- Judith Viorst

The subject of the myriad forms and intricacies of chiastic constructions is taken up in the book Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You by Dr. Mardy Grothe. He also runs the website at with all sorts of discussion, quizzes and mailing lists. The above quotes are taken from there.

Chi*as"mus (?), n. [NL., fr. Gr. a placing crosswise, fr. . See Chiasm.] Rhet.

An inversion of the order of words or phrases, when repeated or subsequently referred to in a sentence

; thus,

If e'er to bless thy sons My voice or hands deny, These hands let useful skill forsake, This voice in silence die. Dwight.


© Webster 1913.

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