A figure of speech that’s often used to subvert reason and logic
An all-time vehicle for expressing great truths and great untruths
Ever wondered how some people have moved us or inspired us to do great things their way, or mesmerized us, put blinders on our eyes, then made us do irrational things that we would never have dreamed of doing had we not been under their spell?
If so, then the speakers—unless they had recited great poetry—must have been using chiasmus. This figure of speech towers above all the other rhetorical devices in its ability to lower our built-in defenses and arouse our emotions. We could very well call chiasmus the linguistic incarnation of charisma—that rare and elusive power of certain people to inspire fierce loyalty and devotion among their followers.
The use of chiasmus dates back to antiquity. In the 6th century B.C., the extremely wealthy Lydian king Croesus went on record using it: “In peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons.” Such wisdom in only 13 words! Is it possible that he became fabulously wealthy because he was so adept at chiasmus and—by implication—at compelling people’s obedience? Or did he become so good at coining chiasmus because his wealth had allowed him the leisure to craft it?
Now take a look at this familiar line from U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, on which so many English-language elocution students had labored investing their own vocal energies over the years: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Just 17 words, but they give us the feeling of an immensely satisfying four-hour lecture on good citizenship. Then see chiasmus at work in this charming line by the English physician and author Havelock Ellis: “Charm is a woman’s strength; strength is a man’s charm.” And, one more time, hark to this timeless sage advice from Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”
By now you must have already discovered for yourself the fundamental structure and mechanism of chiasmus: it reverses the order of words in two parallel phrases. Take this chiasmus by the legendary Hollywood actress Mae West: “I’d rather be looked over than overlooked.” “Looked over” is “overlooked” in reverse, making the speaker wickedly but deliciously imply that she enjoys being ogled at. Or take this arresting, old advertising slogan of a Philippine insurance company: “If someone depends on you, you can depend on Insular Life.” By some linguistic alchemy, the parallel word reversals arouse our senses, disarming us so we readily accept their claim as true. Chiasmus has this power because it heightens the sense of drama in language by surprise. It is no wonder that it holds the distinction of being mankind’s all-time vehicle for expressing great truths and, conversely, also great untruths.
Most types of chiasmus reverse the words of familiar sayings in a felicitously parallel way, as in the French proverb, “Love makes time pass, time makes love pass.” For chiasmus to succeed, however, the two insights offered by the word reversals should both be true and survive subsequent scrutiny. (They could also be untrue, and therein lies the danger in chiasmus in the hands of demagogues and charlatans.) But chiasmus need not be an exact reversal of a familiar saying. Take what the English writer Richard Brinksley said on beholding for the first time the woman whom he was to later marry: “Why don’t you come into my garden? I would like my roses to see you.” This implied chiasmus cleverly reverses this usual invitation of proud homemakers: “I’d like you to see my roses.” And chiasmus also nicely takes the form of questions, as in this line from Antigone by the 5th century Greek dramatist Sophocles: “What greater ornament to a son than a father’s glory, or to a father than a son’s honorable conduct?”
If chiasmus is this pleasurable, does it mean that we should spend a lot of time composing it ourselves to impress people? Not at all! Chiasmus is meant to be used very sparingly, to be reserved only for those very special moments when saying them can truly spell a make-or-break difference in our lives, like preparing for battle, wooing the hearts and minds of people, ruing abject failure, or celebrating great success. In our everyday lives, it is enough for us to spot a good chiasmus so we can savor its wisdom, and to have the wisdom to know when we are simply being conned with fallacy or propaganda masquerading as great truth. (October 16, 2003)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, October 16, 2003 issue © 2003 by The Manila Times. All rights reserved.