Friday, February 22, 2013

What is Chiasmus?

I am currently reading or should I say trying to read Originary Technicity The Theory of Technology from Marx to Derrida by Arthur Bradley. Needless to say my vocabulary is expanding significantly. Every now and a gain a word jumps out at me and I need to know more. The word this morning was Chiasmus, it sounded familiar but I did not know the meaning so for my satisfaction and as a memory jogger I post a reminder from one of a number of websites I came across that offered an explanation, this was the one I preferred, I hope he will forgive me for reposting an extract from his explanation here...

What is Chiasmus?

It's not necessary to read any of what follows to savor the many chiastic quotes that appear on this site. However, by continuing on for a few moments in this section, you'll deepen your understanding of chiasmus and heighten your appreciation of chiastic quotations. If you're a bona fide word, language, and quotation lover, I think you'll find what you're about to read, fascinating.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms by Chris Baldick provides a more extensive description:
chiasmus [ky-AZ-mus] (plural -mi), a figure of speech by which the order of the terms in the first of two parallel clauses is reversed in the second. This may involve a repetition of the same words ("Pleasure's a sin, and sometimes sin's a pleasure" —Byron) or just a reversed parallel between two corresponding pairs of ideas … . The figure is especially common in 18th century English poetry, but is also found in prose of all periods. It is named after the Greek letter chi (x), indicating a "criss-cross" arrangement of terms. Adjective: chiastic.

As you can see, the proper adjective is chiastic and not "chiasmic" or "chiasmatic," as I've heard some say. Technically, the plural is chiasmi, (as with hippopotamus). However, saying chiasmi can come across as pretentious, so you'll want to do that rarely.
According to the OED, chiasmus made its first published appearance in English in 1871 when a British scholar named A. S. Wilkins wrote about an observation from Cicero:
"This is a good instance of the … figure called chiasmus … in which the order of words in the first clause is inverted in the second."
The word goes back to the ancient Greeks and their fascination with language and rhetoric. The "chi" comes from chi, the letter "X" in the Greek alphabet. The word itself comes from the Greek word khiasmos, meaning "crossing." Khiasmos, in turn, is derived from the Greek word khiazein, meaning "to mark with an X."
"To Mark With an X"
One of the most fascinating features of chiasmus is this "marking with an X" notion. Take Mae West's signature line, "It's not the men in my life, it's the life in my men." By laying out the two clauses parallel to each other, it's possible to draw two lines connecting the key words:
It's not the men in my life


it's the life in my men.
The lines intersect, creating an "X." This quote, and all the chiastic quotations you've seen so far on this site, can be "marked with an X." Here are two more examples:
Home is where the great are small


and the small are great

One should eat to live


not live to eat
If you're ever wondering whether a particular quote is chiastic, simply lay it out in this manner. If you can mark it with an X, it is. If you can't, it probably isn't.
The ABBA Method
One other interesting way to view chiastic quotes is the ABBA method. Let's go back to the Mae West quote. If you assign the letters A and B to the first appearance of the key words and A' and B' (read "A prime" and "B prime") to their second appearance, they follow what is referred to as an ABBA pattern:
A   It's not the men
  B   in my life
  B'   it's the life
A'   in my men
Here's how the other two quotes would be laid out:
A   Home is where the great
  B   are small and
  B'   the small
A'   are great
A    One should eat to
  B   live, not
  B'   live
A'   to eat
Chiasmus can be achieved by reversing more than two key words. This observation from the 18th century English writer, Charles Caleb Colton, is a good example:
"How strange it is that we of the present day are constantly praising
that past age which our fathers abused,
and as constantly abusing that present age,
which our children will praise."
Laid out schematically, it looks like this:
A   How strange it is that we of the present day are constantly praising
  B   that past age
    C     which our fathers abused,
    C'     and as constantly abusing
  B'   that present age,
A'   which our children will praise
Another good example comes from Genesis 9:6:
A   Whoever sheds
  B   the blood
    C     of man
    C'     by man shall
  B'   his blood
A'   be shed
Technically, it doesn't make any difference how many words are reversed. Some scholars believe that a chiastic structure can be found in much larger passages, including entire sections of the New Testament and other ancient sacred writings. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. Here, I just wanted to show you how the order of words—any number of words—in the first part of an expression can be reversed in the second.

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