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Understanding the Literary Term 'Chiasmus' With Examples

Priyanka Athavale Jan 23, 2019
Chiasmus is a literary term that we come across every day without realizing. Here we explicate this term with examples to help you understand better.

Did You Know?

Chiasmatic sentences follow the pattern A B B A, just like a rhyme scheme. Only instead of rhyming words, the letters represent nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc. For example, in the words of John F. Kennedy, "Ask not what your country (A) can do for you (B); ask what you (B) can do for your country (A)".
To begin with, chiasmus (pronounced Ky-az-mus) is a literary term which is not heard of very often. Surprisingly, although it is not as well-known as a metaphor or antithesis or a similar figure of speech, we unknowingly use it in our everyday lives. There are numerous famous quotes that attained popularity due to their chiasmatic nature.
So what does chiamus really mean? It means taking a clause, reversing its pattern or structure to change its meaning, and using both in the same sentence. It serves the purpose of giving an artistic effect to any statement.
Chiasmus has been present since time immemorial. It can be found in ancient Hebrew, Latin, and Greek literature. In fact, the word has its origins in Greece. Its Greek meaning is 'shaped like the letter X'.
The opposite ends of each arm of the letter denote the noun, adverb, adjective, etc. used in both the clauses in different contexts; which means that the word is repeated in a sentence, but it is opposite to itself in meaning.
One classic example comes in the form of the oft-heard phrase, 'When the going gets tough, the tough get going'. Here, the position of the words 'going' and 'tough' has been inverted. The statement desires to explain that tough people do not run away from difficult times, but face them bravely.
However, it has been given a creative twist by using a 'play of words'. The words of one clause are inverted to make another clause, which balances the first one. Chiasmatic sentences typically demonstrate reverse or inverted parallelism.

Use of Chiasmus in Holy Books

The Holy Bible

The Bible is a proof of the fact that chiasms were used since ancient times. There are many examples of chiasmatic sentences present in the Bible. Some of these are listed here, along with their word schemes.
"But many that are first (A)
shall be last; (B)
and the last (A')
shall be first." (B') ~ Matthew 19:30
Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, (A)
and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you (B)
and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, (X)
and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy (B)
and My burden is light. (A) ~ Matthew 11:28-30

The Book of Mormon

There are many instances of chiastic sentences in this holy book as well. In fact, chiasm has been used for a major part of the book.
They humble themselves (A)
and become as little children (B)
believing that salvation is in the atoning blood of Christ; (C)
for the natural man (D)
is an enemy of God (E)
and has been from the fall of Adam (F)...
...and will be forever and ever (F')
unless he yieldeth to the holy spirit (E')
and putteth off the natural man (D')
and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ (C')
and becometh as a child (B')
submissive, meek and humble. (A') ~ Mosiah 3:18,19

The Qur'an

The following is an example of the use of chiasm in the Holy Qur'an.
God - there is no deity except Him, the Ever-Living, the Sustainer of existence (A)
Neither drowsiness overtakes Him nor sleep (B)
To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth (C)
Who is it that can intercede with Him except by His permission? (D)
He knows what is before them (E)...
...and what will be after them (E')
and they encompass not a thing of His knowledge except for what He wills (D')
His Kursi extends over the heavens and the earth (C')
and their preservation tires Him not (B')
And He is the Most High, the Most Great (A') ~ Verse of The Kursi

Some More Examples of Chiasmus

Chiasmus is used extensively in literature. Many times, it is used as an inspirational symbol, but it can also be made use of to induce a few laughs. The following are some literary and funny examples of the usage of chiasmus.
✲ "Never let a fool kiss you, or a kiss fool you." - Mardy Grothe

✲ "Do I love you because you are beautiful?
Or are you beautiful because I love you?" - Oscar Hammerstein

✲ "It is not the Earth that makes us believe the man, but the man the oath." - Aeschylus
✲ "In the end, the true test is not the speeches a president delivers; it's whether the president delivers on the speeches." - Hillary Clinton

✲ "Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live." - Socrates
✲ "A parliament member, a justice of peace,
At home a poor scare-crow, at London an asse,
If Lowsie is Lucy, as some Folke miscalle it,
Then Lucy is lowsie whatever befall it:
He thinks himself great,
Yet an asse in his state." - William Shakespeare

✲ "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate." - President John Kennedy
✲ "This isn't a bar for writers with a drinking problem; it's for drinkers with a writing problem." - Judy Joice

✲ "The right to bear arms is slightly less ridiculous than the right to arm bears." - Chris Addison
✲ "Some have an idea that the reason we in this country discard things so readily is because we have so much. The facts are exactly opposite - the reason we have so much is simply because we discard things so readily." - Alfred P. Solan
✲ "I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction's job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." - David Foster Wallace

✲ "Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good." - Samuel Johnson
✲ "Don't sweat the petty things--and don't pet the sweaty things." - George Carlin

✲ "You forget what you want to remember, and you remember what you want to forget." - The Road

✲ "The instinct of a man is to pursue everything that flies from him, and to fly from all that pursues him." - Voltaire

Examples of Chiasmus in Songs

✲ "They say money don't make the man, but man, I'm makin' money." - Tupac Shakur, "Thug Passion"

✲ "With my mind on my money and my money on my mind." - Snoop Dogg,"Gin & Juice"
✲ "I ain't acid rap, but I rap on acid" - Eminem "Kill You"

✲ "And if you can't be with the one you love, honey, love the one you're with." - Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, "Love the one you're with"
As it turns out, chiasmus is a very popular figure of speech that is used not just in literature, but in holy books, and even in songs! One thing is for sure, it does give a sentence an artistic twist.