3 Chiasmus


In rhetoric, chiasmus (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 both in Greek and in Latin literature, where it was used to articulate balance or order within a 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 also used various times in the Book of Mormon.

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 a simple chiasmus are often labelled in the form A B B A, where the letters correspond to grammar, words, or meaning.


Inverted meaning

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."

dotes doubts suspects strongly loves

Inverted grammar

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:

(pronoun, contracted verb, contracted verb, pronoun)
  • "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)

In Scripture

The ancient Hebrew and Greek texts of the Old and New Testaments are rich in chiasmus. Many of these have become lost in translation, but hundreds of others remain. The following examples are indented to show the parallel structure of the text.

A "But many that are first
    B shall be last;
    B1 and the last
A1 shall be first." Jesus (Bible: Matthew 19:30.)

A "Do not give what is holy to dogs,
    B and do not throw your pearls before swine,
    B1 lest they (the pigs) trample them under their feet,
A1 and (the dogs) turn and tear you to pieces." Jesus (Bible: Matthew 7:6.)

A "Make the heart of this people fat,
    B and make their ears heavy,
        C and shut their eyes;
        C1 lest they see with their eyes,
    B1 and hear with their ears,
A1 and understand with their heart, and convert [return], and be healed." (Bible: Isaiah 6:10)

A "Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    B to the house of the God of Jacob
        C …and we will walk in his paths
            D And he shall judge among the nations
                E they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
                E1 and their spears into pruninghooks:
            D1 nation shall not lift up sword against nation…
    B1 O house of Jacob,
A1 come ye,
        C1 and let us walk in the light of the Lord" (Bible: Isaiah 2:3-5)
(Note: in this example, C1 does not fall where it is expected to fall; it follows A1.)

A Remember
  B Jesus Christ
    C raised from the dead
      D descended from David. This is my gospel
        E for which I am suffering
          F even to the point of being chained like a criminal
          F1 But God's word is not chained
        E1 Therefore I endure everything
      D1 for the sake of the elect, that they too
    C1 may obtain the salvation that is in
  B1 Christ Jesus
A1 with eternal glory.
(Bible: 2 Timothy 2:8-10)

A "…but men drink damnation to their own souls except they humble themselves
    B and become as little children,
        C and believe that salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent.
            D For the natural man
                E is an enemy to God,
                    F and has been from the fall of Adam,
                    F1 and will be, forever and ever,
                E1 unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit,
            D1 and putteth off the natural man
        C1 and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord,
    B1 and becometh as a child,
A1 submissive, meek, humble…" (Book of Mormon: Mosiah 3:18-19)

In Latin

Chiasmus is often used in Latin poetry as an alternative form of the golden line, but it can be found in prose as well.

visceribus atras pascit effossis aves (10)

“He feeds the black birds with his gutted wounds”


(A and B denote nouns; a and b denote adjectives and the nouns they modify; V is the verb.)

Adest vir summa auctoritate et religione et fide, M. Lucullus, qui se non opinari sed scire, non audisse sed vidisse, non interfuisse sed egisse dicit. (8)

"There is a man present of the highest authority, duty, and faith, M. Lucullus who (will testify) that he himself does not believe but knows, did not hear but saw, was not only present but did it himself."

The grammar of the Latin follows the form of Verb, Subject, ablative, ablative, ablative, Subject, (relative clause in indirect statement), infinitive verb phrase, infinitive verb phrase, infinitive verb phrase, Verb. The ablatives of quality are bracketed by the subjects they modify and form a chiasmus within a chiasmus.

A B b b b B a a a A

For example, in his letter about the death of Pliny the Elder, he described his uncle sailing into danger to save others:

festinat illuc unde alii fugiunt

"He hurried to the place from where others were fleeing."

Here, he (the writer and nephew, Pliny the Younger) places the verbs festinat (hurried) and fugiunt (were fleeing) on the outside of the chiasmus, and the adverbs illuc (to the place) and unde (where from) in the middle to form the cross. This contrasts the two actions (hurrying and fleeing), and emphasizes the bravery of the uncle (Pliny the elder).

Chi figures Christ

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).[3]

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).[3][4]

Love without end without measure Grace

Synonym for antimetabole

These examples are often quoted by modern commentators to demonstrate chiasmus, although they are defined as antimetabole in the classical sense.

  • "Who sheds the blood of a man, by a man shall his blood be shed..." Genesis 9:6
    In the original Hebrew the above phrase is exactly six words long, in the form (A B C C B A)
  • Fecerunt itaque ciuitates duas amores duo, terrenam scilicet amor sui usque ad contemptum Dei, caelestem uero amor Dei usque ad contemptum sui. "Likewise, two cities have been formed by two loves, the worldly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God, the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self." Augustine, City of God, XIV.28 (AcBdAdBc) (parallelism with love & contempt, chiasmus with self and God).
  • "...ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country." John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961.
  • "Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind." John F. Kennedy
  • "Let's make sure that the Supreme Court does not pick the next president, and this president does not choose the next Supreme Court." Albert Gore Jr. at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
  • "People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power." Bill Clinton at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
  • "America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, it is the other way round. Human rights invented America." [1] Jimmy Carter Farewell Address
  • "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man." Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself
  • "What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight — it's the size of the fight in the dog." Dwight D. Eisenhower January 1958 speech to the Republican National Committee
  • "Well, it's not the men in your life that counts, it's the life in your men." Line spoken by Mae West in I'm No Angel (1933)
  • An earlier example, from Croesus dates back to the 6th century BC: "In peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons."
  • "In America, you can always find a party. In Soviet Russia, the Party can always find you!" Yakov Smirnoff (See Russian Reversal)
  • "Some people use change to promote their careers; other people use their careers to promote change." Sarah Palin
  • "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." Benjamin Franklin
  • "When the going gets tough, the tough get going!" Anon.
  • "They say money don't make the man but man, I'm makin' money." Tupac Shakur in the song "Thug Passion"
  • "They don't care about how much you know until they know how much you care." Jim Calhoun

Chiasmus does not need to be lexical; it can also be aural, as the classic quote,

  • "I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy."
  • "Champagne for my Real Friends; Real Pain for my Sham Friends." Fall Out Boy
  • In the movie Full Metal Jacket, the Senior Drill Instructor says: "Private Pyle, you had best square your ass away and start shitting me tiffany cufflinks or I will definitely fuck you up.

See also


  1. ^ Ramirez, Matthew Eric (January 2011). "Descanting on Deformity: The Irregularities in Shakespeare's Large Chiasms". Text and Performance Quarterly 31 (1): 37–49. http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a930978922~db=all~jumptype=rss. 
  2. ^ Breck, John; √ (1994). The Shape of Biblical Language. Chiasmus in the Scriptures and Beyond. SVS Press,. 
  3. ^ a b Milton, John; Roy Flannagan, ed. (1998). The Riverside Milton. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 420. ISBN 9780395809990. 
  4. ^ Eriksen, Roy T. (2001). The Building in the Text: Alberti to Shakespeare and Milton. Penn State Press. p. 141. http://books.google.com/books?id=hXrRCytoDnYC. 
  • Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 677. ISBN 0-674-36250-0. 

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Chiasmus — Chi*as mus (k[ i]*[a^]z m[u^]s), n. [NL., fr. Gr. chiasmo s a placing crosswise, fr. chia zein. See {Chiasm}.] (Rhet.) An inversion of the order of words or phrases, when repeated or subsequently referred to in a sentence; thus, [1913 Webster] If …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Chiasmus — (griech.), die kreuzweise Stellung nach der Form des griechischen Buchstaben x (X); in der Grammatik der Wechsel in der Stellung des Subjekts und Prädikats, des Genitivs und seines regierenden Kasus etc., so daß im ersten Satz jenes, im andern… …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Chiasmus — (grch.), chiastische Stellung (nach der Form des griech. Buchstabens Chi [χ], kreuzweise Stellung zweier Paare von Satzgliedern, z. B.: »Er war der Guten Hort, der Schrecken aller Bösen« …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

  • Chiasmus — Chiasmus, in der Grammatik die verschobene Stellung des Subjects und Prädicats oder des Genitivs und seines regierenden Casus; ein Zeichen bei zweifelhaften Stellen eines Autors. Von dem griech. Buchstaben Χ benannt …   Herders Conversations-Lexikon

  • chiasmus — inversion of word order, 1871, Mod.L., from Gk. khiasmos a placing crosswise, diagonal arrangement, related to khiasma two things placed crosswise, from khiazein to mark with an X , to write the letter X , from CHI (Cf. chi) …   Etymology dictionary

  • chiasmus — [kī az′məs] n. pl. chiasmi [kī az′mī΄] [ModL < Gr chiasmos: see CHIASMA] Rhetoric inversion of the second of two parallel phrases, clauses, etc. (Ex.: she went to Paris; to New York went he) chiastic [kīas′tik] adj …   English World dictionary

  • Chiasmus — Der Chiasmus (latinisiert von gr. χιασμός chiasmós „Überkreuzen“; von χίασμα chíasma „Kreuzung“ nach dem griechischen Buchstaben Χ, Chi; in der neugriechischen Terminologie το χιαστό) ist eine rhetorische Figur, bei der Satzglieder und Teilsätze… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • chiasmus — A literary device used in rhetoric and in poetry to designate the inversion of an order of words, phrases, or rhyming which follow subsequently in the material. It can be represented by the Greek letter Χ (khi, chi) or the symbols a, b, c; c, b,… …   Dictionary of the Bible

  • chiasmus — UK [kaɪˈæzməs] / US noun [countable/uncountable] Word forms chiasmus : singular chiasmus plural chiasmi linguistics a statement in which you repeat a phrase in a sentence but with the words in the opposite order. For example some people eat to… …   English dictionary

  • Chiasmus — Chi|as|mus der; <über nlat. chiasmus aus gr. chiasmós »das Überkreuzstellen«; vgl. ↑Chiasma> kreuzweise syntaktische Stellung von aufeinander bezogenen Wörtern od. Redeteilen (z. B. groß war der Einsatz, der Gewinn war klein; Rhet.;… …   Das große Fremdwörterbuch

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