AskDefine | Define chiasmus

Dictionary Definition

chiasmus n : inversion in the second of two parallel phrases [also: chiasmi (pl)]

User Contributed Dictionary



chiasmus from χιασμός, from χιάζειν (to mark with a chi), from chi, written χ.


SAMPA: [kaI"a:zm@s]


chiasmus (plural: chiasmi)
  1. An inversion of the relationship between the elements of phrases, e.g. To stop too fearful, and too faint to go -- Goldsmith. Used especially in classical languages, e.g. haec queritur, stupet haec (this woman complains, this one gapes) -- Ovid, Ars Amatoria, 1.124

Derived terms

Extensive Definition

In rhetoric, chiasmus is the figure of speech in which two clauses are related to each other through a reversal of structures in order to make a larger point; that is, the two clauses display inverted parallelism. Chiasmus was particularly popular in Latin literature, where it was used to articulate balance or order within a text. The Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible also contain many long and complex chiasmas.
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 has been applied to motifs in stories and plays, producing 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.

Chiasmus in 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."

Chiasmus in inverted grammar

An example of a parallel sentence is:
  • ”He knowingly lied and we blindly followed”
(A B A B)
Inverting into chiasmus:
  • "He knowingly lied and we followed blindly"
(A B B A)
Other examples:
  • Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they (the pigs) trample them under their feet, and (the dogs) turn and tear you to pieces. Matthew 7:6.
  • "By day the frolic, and the dance by night". Samuel Johnson The Vanity of Human Wishes.
  • "His time a moment, and a point his space." Alexander Pope Essay on Man, Epistle I.
  • "Swift as an arrow flying, fleeing like a hare afraid..."
The clause above follows the form of adjective, simile, gerund, gerund, simile, adjective (A B C C B A).

Chiasmus 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 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 his uncle's two actions (hurrying and fleeing), and emphasizes his bravery.

Chiasmus as a 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)
  • "...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.
  • "...Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.." 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.
  • "America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, it is the other way round. Human rights invented America." 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
  • "To be kissed by a fool is stupid; To be fooled by a kiss is worse." Ambrose Redmoon
  • "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)
  • There are examples of chiasmus in the Bible. For example, Genesis 9:6: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed."
  • 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)
  • A popular saying is, "You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy."
Chiasmus may be implied, referring to a well-known expression, as when Kermit the Frog says "Time's fun when you're having flies" or Mae West says "A hard man is good to find," or Jethro Tull's "In the beginning Man created God."
Chiasmus is not limited to an exchange of words; it can also involve the exchange of letters or syllables, as in Tom Waits' quote, "I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy."
An informal term for chiasmus introduced by Calvin Trillin and used particularly among political speechwriters is reversible raincoat sentences.


  • Greek Grammar
  • John Breck. The Shape of Biblical Language. Chiasmus in the Scriptures and Beyond (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1994).

External links

chiasmus in Czech: Chiasmus
chiasmus in German: Chiasmus
chiasmus in Spanish: Quiasmo
chiasmus in French: Chiasme
chiasmus in Galician: Quiasmo
chiasmus in Italian: Chiasmo
chiasmus in Hungarian: Kiazmus
chiasmus in Dutch: Chiasme
chiasmus in Polish: Chiazm
chiasmus in Slovak: Chiazmus
chiasmus in Swedish: Kiasm
chiasmus in Ukrainian: Хіазм
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