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Rhetorical devices: Chiasmus - examples & definition

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What is Chiasmus?

So ... you may have heard the name, but exactly what is chiasmus? Chiasmus (pronounced ky-AZ-mus) is a rhetorical device that originates from the Greek chiazo, meaning “to shape like a letter X”. It is a figure of speech in which the second half of an expression is reversed to mirror the first half, i.e. A/B, B/A (where the letters represent words, phrases or parts of speech).

Perhaps the best known example of chiasmus is JFK’s "ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country”.

Chiasmus can also use sounds rather than whole words, and is the basis for many "What's the difference between ...?" jokes. This is called phonetic chiasmus. For example:

"What's the difference between a fisherman and a lazy schoolboy? One baits his hook, while the other hates his book"

"What's the difference between a heroic soldier and an evil baker? One darts in to his foe, the other ...."

"What's the difference between a photocopier and the flu? One makes facsimiles; the other makes sick families"

"Id rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy."

It can also be implied. When Kermit says, Time’s fun when you’re having flies,” the second part “Time flies when you’re having fun” was implied rather than expressed. It isn’t strictly necessary to quote the second half when using chiasmus in this way.

Chiasmus examples:

The best way to answer 'What is chiasmus?' is to have a look at a few examples.

Political Chiasmus Examples

Apart from JFK's famous quote mentioned above, there are numerous political chiasmus examples:

"It's not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years - Abraham Lincoln

"A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty" - Winston Churchill

“What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in thefight — it's the size of the fight in the dog” - President Eisenhower

"I, too, was born in the slum. But just because you're born in the slum does not mean the slum is born in you, and you can rise above it if your mind is made up." - Jesse Jackson

"Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind” - JFK

"America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, it is the other way round.Human rights invented America" -Jimmy Carter

“People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power - Bill Clinton

"Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done" - George W Bush

"The true test is not the speeches the president delivers; it's if the president delivers on the speeches- Hillary Clinton

"In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers. And then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change” - Sarah Palin

"My job is not to represent Washington to you, but to represent you to Washington" - President Barack Obama

Chiasmus in Advertising

Many advertising jingles and slogans are examples of chiasmus:

"You can take it out of the country, but you can't take the country out of it" - Salem cigarettes

"I am stuck on Band-Aid, and Band-Aid's stuck on me"- Band-Aid bandages

"Starkist doesn't want tuna with good taste, Starkist wants tuna that tastesgood!" - Starkist Tuna

Chiasmus in The Bible

You can also find many chiasmus examples in the Bible

“Who sheds the blood of a man, by a man shall his blood be shed" (Genesis 9:6, NB:In the original Hebrew the above phrase is exactly six words long, in the form (A/B/C, C/B/A))

“But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first." (Matthew 19:30.)

Miscellaneous Chiasmus

"Lust is what makes you keep wanting to do it, even when you have no desire to be with each other. Love is what makes you keep wanting to be with each other, even when you have no desire to do it" - Judith Viorst

"All right, brain, I don't like you and you don't like me - so let's just do this, and I'll get back to killing you with beer" - Homer Simpson, The Simpsons

"Nice to see you, to see you nice" - catchphrase of veteran British TV entertainer Bruce Forsyth

"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

“One should eat to live, not live to eat” - Cicero

"It's not the men in your life that count, it's the life in your men- Mae West

"I'd rather be looked over than overlooked" – Mae West; again! – who realized she was such a rhetorician?

Pleasure's a sin, and sometimes sin's a pleasure - Lord Byron

All for one, and one for all- Alexander Dumas; motto of the Three Musketeers

"I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better" - A. J. Liebling

“O powerful love, that in some respects makes a beast a man, in some other, a man a beast - Shakespeare

"Is man one of God's blunders or God one of man's blunders?" - Friedrich Nietzsche

"Are we like this because we're rock stars, or rock stars because we're like this?" - spoof rockumentary 'Spinal Tap'


And finally, here are some anonymous chiasmus examples:

“Don't sweat the petty things, and don't pet the sweaty things."

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going

"Never let a fool kiss you, or a kiss fool you.

"Love makes time pass, time makes love pass" (French proverb)

“He who fails to prepare, prepares to fail

“A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but a waist is a terrible thing to mind."


A rhetorical device that is closely linked to chiasmus is antimetabole (pronounced AN-tie-muh-TAB-oh-lee). This repeats an exact phrase in reverse order.It comes from a Greek word meaning, "to turn about in the opposite direction." We've already seen a couple of exaples of it. The Three Musketeers' motto 'All for one, and one for all' exactly reverses the 3 words all, for and one.

Cicero's quote 'One should eat to live, not live to eat' does the same thing, as does A.J. Liebling's 'I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better'.

However, Mae West's 'It's not the men in your life that count, it's the life in your men is not an example of antimetabole although it seems to be at first glance, because the words 'in your' are repeated rather than reversed. However, 'I'd rather be looked over than overlooked' is antimetabolic.

So all examples of antimetabole are chiastic, not all examples of chiasmus are antimetabolic. So really ... antimetabole is more a type of chiasmus than a separate rhetorical device.

Related articles:

What is chiasmus?



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