How to do Chiasmus


by Peter Paskale

It’s not the men in your life that matters, it’s the life in your men

One of Mae West’s celebrated phrases. Along with “Come up and see me some time“, to read these words is to hear the sinuous drawl in which they were delivered.

West was a Queen of the soundbite. She was also a Queen of chiasmus — a little rhetorical device that adds style to any presentation or piece of writing.

Mae West isn’t alone in her crush on chiasmus. Take a look at these:

  • With my mind on my money and my money on my mind
  • I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me
  • I meant what I said and I said what I meant
  • All for one and one for all

That’s with thanks, respectively, to Snoop Dogg, Winston Churchill, Horton the Elephant, and the Three Musketeers — and I’m willing to bet that this is the first time in recorded history those four names have ever appeared together on the same list.

Chiasmus is when two lines of text, or two adjacent phrases, are symmetrical — “I meant what I said – I said what I meant“. The human brain just loves things that are symmetrical. The more symmetrical a thing, the more we see it as intrinsically attractive. It even reaches to our assessment of human beauty — the more symmetrical someone’s face, the more beautiful we believe they are.

So symmetry captures the eye, or the ear, of an audience, just as a radio advert did to me yesterday when I heard the slogan of a tax advisor “working hard for hard workers“.

Building chiasmus into writing or speaking provides an instant style-boost, but the technique looks difficult. When you first try to create your own chiasmus, confusion creeps all over you. I know. I’ve been there. So, a few ideas to de-mystify the tool of chiasmus:

Chiasmus needs only to be roughly symmetrical
Chiasmus is essentially two phrases, side-by-side, where the second phrase loosely reverses the first. Loosely! It does not need to be a mirror-perfect reflection. So, whilst “Tea for two and two for tea” might be a letter-perfect model – it’s not one to copy.

Keep in mind something more like “‘Instead of landing on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock would land on them.”

The reflection is loose. It’s flexible rather than perfect — in fact it’s perfectly flexible.

Chiasmus can agree, or disagree. It really doesn’t matter
Make a web-search for chiasmus and you’re going to meet JFK’s famous “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country“, and this can lead you to believe that as well as mirroring each other, the two phrases must also counter each other.

Not true. The two sides of a chiasmus can agree or disagree — it doesn’t matter. “Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he“.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery
The best route to a confident chiasmus is to copy! Copy and mangle and do it with happy abandon.

Let’s take Horton the Elephant and see what we can build out of “I meant what I said and I said what I meant”:

  • I like what I do and I do what I like
  • If you read what you love, then you’ll love what you read
  • See the friends you enjoy and you’ll enjoy the friends that you’re with

Keep a lid on it
Beware of inflicting a chiasmus-overdose on your audience. Limit it to just one per article or speech.

Have a go!
Chiasmus looks scary on first sight and that can stop us from experimenting with a fabulous tool for fabulous soundbites.

Don’t be afraid to start-out by copying chiasmus examples. It’s the best way to start and will guarantee that your speeches get noticed, which is important, because in the words of Mae West:

I’d rather be looked over, than overlooked.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this post, Peter. Just this week, I tweeted a phrase (about making elearning interactive) that’s similar:
    “Forgo interaction – go for introspection!”

    I appreciate all the examples you give, as well as the advice to use chiasmus sparingly.

    • Thanks Craig. Chiasmus is a catchy little thing! Once it gets under your skin you start to notice them popping-up everywhere! That combination of Forgo / Go For is a wonderful example!

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