Chiasmus

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For application of chiasmus on larger scale structure, see Chiastic structure.
Chiasmus represented as a "X" structure. When read left to right, top to bottom, the first topic (A) is reiterated as the last, and the middle concept (B) appears twice in succession.

In rhetoric, chiasmus (Latin term from Greek χίασμα, "crossing", from the Greek χιάζω, chiázō, "to shape like the letter Χ") is the figure of speech in which two or more clauses are related to each other through a reversal of structures in order to make a larger point; that is, the clauses display inverted parallelism. Chiasmus was particularly popular in the literature of the ancient world, including Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, where it was used to articulate the balance of order within the text. As a popular example, many long and complex chiasmi have been found in Shakespeare and the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible.[1][2] It is found in the Book of Mormon, along with many other fictional novels (e.g., A Tale of Two Cities).[3]

Today, chiasmus is applied fairly broadly to any "criss-cross" structure, although in classical rhetoric it was distinguished from other similar devices, such as the antimetabole. In its classical application, chiasmus would have been used for structures that do not repeat the same words and phrases, but invert a sentence's grammatical structure or ideas. The concept of chiasmus on a higher level, applied to motifs, turns of phrase, or whole passages, is called chiastic structure.

The elements of simple chiasmus are often labelled in the form A B B A, where the letters correspond to grammar, words, or meaning. For example John F. Kennedy said "ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country".

Inverted meaning[edit]

But O, what damned minutes tells he o'er
Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet strongly loves.
Shakespeare, Othello 3.3

"Dotes" and "strongly loves" share the same meaning and bracket "doubts" and "suspects".

A B B A
dotes doubts suspects strongly loves

Inverted grammar[edit]

A reversed order of the grammar in two or more clauses in a sentence will yield a chiasmus.

Consider the example of a parallel sentence:

  • "He knowingly led and we blindly followed"
(A B A B)
(Subject, adverb, verb, conjunction (cross), subject, adverb, verb.)

Inverting into chiasmus:

  • "He knowingly led and we followed blindly"
(A B B A)
(Subject, adverb, verb, conjunction (cross), subject, verb, adverb.)

Other examples:

  • "By day the frolic, and the dance by night". Samuel Johnson The Vanity of Human Wishes.
(prepositional phrases and gerunds in reverse order)
  • "His time a moment, and a point his space." Alexander Pope Essay on Man, Epistle I.
(possessive phrases with nouns; also note that this is an example of chiasmus of inverted meaning "time and space", "moment and point")
  • "Swift as an arrow flying, fleeing like a hare afraid"

The clause above follows the form of adjective, simile, participle, participle, simile, adjective (A B C C B A). In parallel form:

  • Swift as an arrow flying, afraid like a hare fleeing.
(A B C A B C)

Chi figures Christ[edit]

In Christian poetry, chiasmus takes on added meaning since Chi is the first element of Chi Rho, the first letters of "Christ" in Greek, and since the "X" that characterizes chiasmus stands for the cross on which Christ was crucified. Thus, Christian poets have utilized chiasmus in very specific places to direct attention to an added layer of meaning. A good example is found early on in John Milton's Paradise Lost, in a passage where the Son of God tells his father that untempered justice without mercy is an unlikely course of action in his predicted punishment for Man's fall: "That be from thee farr, / That farr be from thee" (Bk.3, 153-54).[4]

A B B A
be from thee farr farr be from thee

The Son of God's future role as Christ is prefigured as it were by the utilization of the cruciform chiasmus (be—far/far—be); Christ's crucifixion will be the beginning of God's mercy tempering his justice. Earlier in the same passage chiasmus was already used in the description of the Son of God's appearance: "In his face / Divine compassion visibly appeerd, / Love without end, and without measure Grace" (140-42).[4][5]

A B B A
Love without end without measure Grace

Conceptual chiasmus[edit]

Chiasmus can be used in the structure of entire passages to parallel concepts or ideas. This process, termed "conceptual chiasmus", uses a criss-crossing rhetorical structure to cause an overlapping of "intellectual space".[6] Conceptual chiasmus utilizes specific linguistic choices, often metaphors, to create a connection between two differing disciplines.[6] By employing a chiastic structure to a single presented concept, rhetors encourage one area of thought to consider an opposing area's perspective.

Effectiveness of Chiasmus[edit]

Chiasmus derives its effectiveness from its symmetrical structure. The structural symmetry of the chiasmus imposes the impression upon the reader or listener that the entire argument has been accounted for.[7] In other words, chiasmus creates only two sides of an argument or idea for the listener to consider, and then leads the listener to favor one side of the argument. In former President John F. Kennedy's famous quote, "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country",[8] the only two questions that the chiastic statement allows for are whether the listener should ask what the country can do for him or her, or ask what he or she can do for the country. The statement also proposes that the latter statement is more favorable. Thus, chiasmus gains its rhetorical efficacy through symmetrical structure causing the belief that all tenants of an argument have been evaluated.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Ramirez, Matthew Eric (January 2011). "Descanting on Deformity: The Irregularities in Shakespeare's Large Chiasms". Text and Performance Quarterly 31 (1): 37–49. doi:10.1080/10462937.2010.526240. 
  2. ^ Breck, John (1994). The Shape of Biblical Language: Chiasmus in the Scriptures and Beyond. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. ISBN 978-0-8814-1139-3. OCLC 30893460. 
  3. ^ Grothe, Mardy (1999). Never Let a Fool Kiss You Or a Kiss Fool You: Chiasmus and a World of Quotations That Say What They Mean and Mean What They Say. New York: Viking. ISBN 0-670-87827-8. OCLC 40754774. 
  4. ^ a b Milton, John (1998). Flannagan, Roy, ed. The Riverside Milton. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 420. ISBN 978-0-395-80999-0. OCLC 38841712. 
  5. ^ Eriksen, Roy T. (2001). The Building in the Text: Alberti to Shakespeare and Milton. University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press. p. 141. ISBN 0271020229. OCLC 42726253. 
  6. ^ a b Ceccarelli, Leah (2001). Shaping Science with Rhetoric: The Cases of Dobzhansky, Schrödinger, and Wilson. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. p. 5. ISBN 0226099067. OCLC 45276826. 
  7. ^ Lissner, Patricia (2007). Chi-thinking: Chiasmus and Cognition. University of Maryland. p. 217. Retrieved November 5, 2014. 
  8. ^ Kennedy, John. "Inaugural Address". American Rhetoric. American Rhetoric. Retrieved November 5, 2014.