Chiasmus

This article is an exciting one; a stimulating read this one will be. No, that's not Yoda. That was an example of chiasmus, a unique literary device you've likely seen before but may not have known the name of! Chiasmus often sounds like Yoda because, much like chiasmus, Yoda inverts his grammatical phrases. In its basic form, chiasmus involves taking the key concepts of one phrase, reversing them, and displaying the inverted phrase next to the original.

Chiasmus Chiasmus

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    All of this may sound complicated at first, but you'll pick it up in no time. Let's look at the key elements, types, and examples of chiasmus to help you better understand how it's applied.

    Chiasmus: definition

    To understand chiasmus, let's look at a basic definition and then identify the essential features of the device.

    Chiasmus is a literary device. It involves stating one phrase and then inverting it in the following phrase, meaning that the critical elements of the first phrase feature in the second in reverse order. This is done to create a stylised effect, in which two constructions appear to mirror each other.

    An example of chiasmus is:

    I sprinted quickly; swiftly, I ran

    As you can see, the colour-coded concepts are related, and the first and second phrases are mirrored. At first, this may seem confusing, so let's break down the crucial factors that make chiasmus unique.

    Words that are 'related'

    All sentences with chiasmus must contain words that are related to each other. Let's look at a simple example to explain this concept:

    A pet could help with your worrying; that anxiety could be cured by a dog.

    In this example, 'pet' is related to 'dog' and 'anxiety' is related to 'worrying'. You'll notice that the words in each phrase do not need to be identical; they only need to be related.

    Two words can be 'related' in a variety of ways. The most common form of chiasmus contains words that have similar meanings, as seen in the example above. However, chiasmus can also include terms that are related because they are opposites of each other. For example:

    I could not accept the end of the day, but when night arrived, I could not refuse it.

    The words 'accept'/'refuse' and 'day'/'night' don't share the same meaning but are still related to each other because they are opposites. This means the sentence is still an example of chiasmus.

    A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is: if the concepts don't relate to each other, it's not chiasmus. As it's sometimes difficult to judge whether two concepts are related, it's not always easy to identify whether something fits the device or doesn't.

    To help put this in perspective, let's look at an example that is not chiasmus:

    She detested her boyfriend's lousy baking. Monday mornings were also the subject of her hatred.

    While 'She detested' and 'her hatred' are related, 'her boyfriend's lousy baking' and 'Monday mornings' are completely unconnected concepts, meaning the sentence cannot be chiasmus. In comparison, if we were to turn this sentence into an example of chiasmus, it would look like this:

    She detested her boyfriend's lousy baking. His terrible cake-making was the subject of her hatred.

    As her 'boyfriend's lousy baking' and 'his terrible cake-making' are related concepts, this example now fits the criteria for chiasmus.

    Inverted sentence structure

    Chiasmus depends on the inversion of two related concepts. While similar words may be repeated in consecutive phrases, if the structure of the phrase isn't inverted, the sentence can't be an example of chiasmus.

    For instance, at first glance, this sentence may seem to meet the criteria for chiasmus:

    I'd rather die on my feet than live on my knees.

    The words 'die'/'live' and 'feet'/'knees' are related to each other in some capacity. However, because the two phrases are not mirrored, they are not chiasmus. If this sentence were to be changed into chiasmus, it would look like this:

    On my feet, I'd rather die than live on my knees.

    The related words have now been inverted so that they mirror each other, turning the sentence into chiasmus. It can be helpful to think of chiasmus as following an 'A-B-B-A' structure, where the corresponding letters represent related concepts. In contrast, the first example in this section would be illustrated by an 'A-B-A-B' structure.

    You might notice that phrases written with chiasmus sometimes sound dated and overly formal. A sentence like 'I'd rather die on my feet than live on my knees' sounds significantly more natural than 'On my feet, I'd rather die than live on my knees'. For this reason, it's rare to find chiasmus in informal day-to-day scenarios. Instead, we usually find chiasmus in poetry and formal literature, where stylised grammatical structures are more commonly used for effect.

    Chiasmus: types

    Chiasmus is closely related to another literary device known as antimetabole. The terms are so alike that antimetabole is commonly seen as a type of chiasmus.

    Antimetabole is a literary device in which a phrase is replicated in reverse grammatical order from one clause to the next.

    Pick up on any differences? The key word is 'replicated'. In an antimetabole, the same words or phrases are mirrored across separate clauses. For example:

    When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

    Notice how the words on both sides are the same? Some stricter definitions of chiasmus state that concepts should be inverted and repeated but that the words should always be different. Using this definition, the example above would not be an example of chiasmus.

    Many definitions now hold that chiasmus can involve the repetition of words. With this in mind, the above example would be both an antimetabole and chiasmus.

    Whether or not to include antimetabole as part of chiasmus, or treat it as a wholly separate device, is still a hotly debated topic!

    Chiasmus: origin

    The word 'chiasmus' was first used in the 19th century and derives from the Greek word khiasmos which translates to a 'crossing, diagonal arrangement'. This itself derives from the greek word chi, the twenty-second letter of the Greek alphabet, which resembles an 'X'.

    Chiasmus, Chiastic Structure with lines crossing in an x formation and two corners read A while the others read B, StudySmarterFig. 1 - This a graphic representation of the chiastic structure.

    Each letter here represents a concept. When read from left to right, top to bottom, the letter X reflects the A-B-B-A chiasmus format that we mentioned earlier. The diagonal lines link the corresponding letters, and therefore concepts, together.

    Chiasmus: in literature

    Chiasmus has a long and complex history within English literature. Authors of ancient texts commonly employed it to express order and balance within their work. Greek, Latin and Hebrew writers were some of the first to employ chiasmus.

    The technique is commonly associated with poetry, largely because the poetic genre promotes manipulation of language, form and structure. However, instances of chiasmus can be found throughout literature in everything from novels to drama. Dramas that contain poetic verse are particularly suited to chiasmus.

    Although rare in modern prose due to the often formal language it creates, chiasmus has maintained its reputation as an effective literary device. It is stylistically appealing and is also capable of reiterating a concept in a different way to expand upon an idea. Both of these features help make chiasmus memorable for the reader.

    Chiasmus: examples

    Here are some examples of chiasmus across time.

    Shakespeare

    The work of Shakespeare is bursting with brilliant examples of chiasmus. For example, in Othello (1604), Iago warns Othello against jealousy in his attempts to sew the seed that Othello's wife is unfaithful. He uses a chiasmus to emphasise the contradictions of jealousy. The words 'dotes'/'loves' and 'doubts'/'suspects' are related.

    Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves.

    - Othello, (3.3.168)

    Mary Leapor

    Mary Leapor (1722-1746), in her feminist poem 'Essay on Woman' (1751), satirised the confining roles assigned to women in the eighteenth century, employing a chiasmus to emphasise these limitations. The words 'despised'/'betrayed' and 'ugly'/'fair' are related.

    A wife in bondage, or neglected maid;

    Despised, if ugly; if she's fair, betrayed.

    - 'Essay on Woman', lines 3-4

    John Milton

    In his epic poem, Paradise Lost, Milton includes multiple excellent examples of chiasmus. Often Milton's use of chiasmus is based on religion. In this instance, 'love' and 'grace' are concepts linked in the eye of God, and 'without end' and 'without measure' both represent eternity.

    Divine compassion visibly appeerd

    Love without end, and without measure grace...

    Paradise Lost, Book III

    Chiasmus - Key takeaways

    • Chiasmus is a literary device. It involves stating one phrase and then inverting it in the following phrase, meaning that the critical elements of the first phrase feature in the second in reverse order.
    • All sentences with chiasmus must contain words that are related to each other. These could be words that are similar or opposite to each other.
    • The structure of a chiasmus must be inverted, meaning that if one concept ends the first phrase, it must begin the second phrase (A-B-B-A).
    • Chiasmus derives from the Greek letter chi, which resembles the letter 'X'.
    • There are many famous examples of chiasmus in English literature, including in the works of Shakespeare, John Milton, and Mary Leapor.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Chiasmus

    What is chiasmus?

    Chiasmus is a literary device. It involves stating one phrase and then inverting it in the following phrase, meaning that the critical elements of the first phrase feature in the second in reverse order. 

    When was chiasmus discovered?

    While the term 'chiasmus' was first used in the 19th century, the technique has been employed for thousands of years, and first saw use in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew texts. 

    What are chiasmus examples?

    Chiasmus can be seen in the work of Shakespeare, John Milton, and Mary Leapor, and among many other famous poets and playwrights. 

    How does chiasmus work? 

    A chiasmus works by inverting the concept in one phrase and presenting it in a second phrase. This is an effective way of expanding upon a concept, helping make sentences featuring chiasmus more memorable for the reader. 

    What are the types of chiasmus?

    Chiasmus is closely related to antimetabole, another literary device that replicates a phrase in reverse using the same words in both phrases. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    All chiastic sentences must contain words that are related to each other. Is this true or false?

    Words in each phrase need to be identical in order for it to be considered chiasmus. Is this true or false?

    A chiasmus cannot include terms that are opposites of each other. Is this true or false?

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