Monday, December 26, 2016

What is Chiasmus?

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”. Many readers will recognize that John F. Kennedy quote. But I expect far fewer people will know what that style of writing is called, or where it comes from.

It’s actually an ancient literary technique called, chiasmus, Greek for “crossing”. That is, two or more clauses are related to each other through a reversal of structures in order to make a larger point. The technique is found a lot in Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Quran.

A well-known quote from Shakespeare is, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair", Macbeth 1.1

Chiasmus enables writers to create a special artistic effect in order to lay emphasis on what they want to communicate. Richard A. Lanham in his treatise, Analyzing Prose, said, “By keeping the phrase but inverting its meaning we use our opponent’s own power to overcome him, just as a judo expert does. So a scholar remarked of another’s theory, ‘Cannon entertains that theory because that theory entertains Cannon.’ The pun on ‘entertain’ complicates the chiasmus here, but the judo still prevails–Cannon is playing with the power of his own mind rather than figuring out the secrets of the universe.”

Have fun creating your own chiasmus.

Helen Woodall


jean hart stewart said...

Great blog...I always enjoy learning new words, and this one grabbed me. Thanks....Jean

Helen Woodall: Freelance Editing said...

Great to see you, Jean.