Chiasmus Study: Definition and Examples

What is Chiasmus?
Chiasmus Study

Chiasmus Study: Definition and Examples

Chiasmus is a literary device in which words, grammatical constructions, or concepts are repeated in reverse order in a two-part structure, creating a mirrored effect. This technique originally comes from the Greek word meaning “crossing” or “X-shaped.” It’s used to give writing depth and rhythm like many other stylistic devices.  To form a chiasmus you need to employ an inverse structure that highlights parallel concepts or emphasizes contrast. Thus, it can deepen ideas through contrast if the parallel concepts oppose each other or create emphasis if the concepts are similar.

How to use Chiasmus

In literature, chiasmus can create a lyrical and balanced effect, adding a pleasing pattern and cadence to the text. It’s often found in poetry to contribute to a work’s thematic unity and interconnectedness, as seen in works by John Milton and Walt Whitman. Chiasmus can also appear in speeches, where its memorable structure makes political or persuasive statements more impactful, a technique used by figures like John F. Kennedy.

We should see there elements in the structure of a chiasmus;

  1. Chiasmus should involve two main phrases or clauses.
  2. The grammatical structure of the second part should mirror the first part of the sentence.
  3. The keywords or concepts are switched around, creating a contrasting or parallel effect.

Now, let’s check this example:

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

This famous quote from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech is a good example of chiasmus. It contains two parts, each mirroring the other in structure. Here the twist comes with the reversal of the subject and the object in the two clauses, emphasizing a shift from personal gain to personal contribution.

Some Chiasmus Examples

  1. Shakespeare’s “Othello”: “Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet strongly loves.” Here, Shakespeare uses chiasmus to depict the complex emotions of love, doubt, and suspicion intertwined within Othello’s thoughts.
  2. Cicero: “One should eat to live, not live to eat.” This chiasmus emphasizes the importance of moderation and the proper place of food in one’s life, contrasting living for sustenance versus sustenance for living.
  3. Samuel Johnson: “By day the frolic, and the dance by night.” Johnson employs chiasmus to describe a lifestyle filled with continuous celebration, emphasizing the inversion of day and night activities.
  4. Barack Obama: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” Although originally from Martin Luther King Jr., Obama’s usage reiterates the message of unity and the dire consequences of division.
  5. The Bible, Matthew 23:12: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” This is a moral teaching using chiasmus to illustrate the virtue of humility and the vice of pride.
  6. The Bible: “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first” is a well-known example of chiasmus from the Bible. This phrase appears in the New Testament of the Bible, specifically in Matthew 19:30, Mark 10:31, and Luke 13:30. It is part of Jesus’ teachings, emphasizing the reversal of earthly fortunes and statuses in the kingdom of heaven. 
  7. The proverb: “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy” is an example of chiasmus through its mirrored structure and inversion of elements. The first part of the sentence (“take the boy out of the country”) is inverted in the second part (“take the country out of the boy”), This shift emphasizes the lasting impact of a child’s origin.
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