For application of chiasmus on larger scale structure, see Chiastic structure.
Chiasmus represented as an "X" structure. When read left to right, top to bottom, the first topic (A) is reiterated as the last, and the middle concept (B) appears twice in succession.

In rhetoric, chiasmus, or less commonly chiasm, (Latin term from Greek χίασμα, "crossing", from the Greek χιάζω, chiázō, "to shape like the letter Χ") is the figure of speech in which two or more clauses are related to each other through a reversal of structures in order to make a larger point; that is, the clauses display inverted parallelism. Chiasmus was particularly popular in the literature of the ancient world, including Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, where it was used to articulate the balance of order within the text. As a popular example, many long and complex chiasmi have been found in Shakespeare and the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible.[1][2] It is also found throughout the Quran.[3]

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 on a higher level, applied to motifs, turns of phrase, or whole passages, is called chiastic structure.

The elements of simple chiasmus are often labelled in the form A B B A, where the letters correspond to grammar, words, or meaning. For example John F. Kennedy said, "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country".

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".

dotes doubts suspects strongly loves

"Fair is foul, and foul is fair"
Shakespeare, Macbeth 1.1

fair foul foul fair

Conceptual chiasmus

Chiasmus can be used in the structure of entire passages to parallel concepts or ideas. This process, termed "conceptual chiasmus", uses a criss-crossing rhetorical structure to cause an overlapping of "intellectual space".[4] Conceptual chiasmus utilizes specific linguistic choices, often metaphors, to create a connection between two differing disciplines.[4] By employing a chiastic structure to a single presented concept, rhetors encourage one area of thought to consider an opposing area's perspective.

Effectiveness of chiasmus

Chiasmus derives its effectiveness from its symmetrical structure. The structural symmetry of the chiasmus imposes the impression upon the reader or listener that the entire argument has been accounted for.[5] In other words, chiasmus creates only two sides of an argument or idea for the listener to consider, and then leads the listener to favor one side of the argument. In former President John F. Kennedy's famous quote, "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country",[6] the only two questions that the chiastic statement allows for are whether the listener should ask what the country can do for him, or ask what he can do for his country. The statement also proposes that the latter statement is more favorable. Thus, chiasmus gains its rhetorical efficacy through symmetrical structure causing the belief that all tenets of an argument have been evaluated.

Thematic chiasmus

The Wilhelmus, the national anthem of the Netherlands, has a structure composed around a thematic chiasmus: the 15 stanzas of the text are symmetrical, in that verses one and 15 resemble one another in meaning, as do verses two and 14, three and 13, etc., until they converge in the eighth verse, the heart of the song. Written in the 16th century, the Wilhelmus originated in the nation's struggle to achieve independence. It tells of the Father of the Nation William of Orange who was stadholder in the Netherlands under the king of Spain. In the first person, as if quoting himself, William speaks to the Dutch people and tells about both the outer conflict – the Dutch Revolt – as well as his own, inner struggle: on one hand, he tries to be faithful to the king of Spain,[7] on the other hand he is above all faithful to his conscience: to serve God and the Dutch people. This is made apparent in the central 8th stanza: "Oh David, thou soughtest shelter from King Saul's tyranny. Even so I fled this welter". Here the comparison is made between the biblical David and William of Orange as merciful and just leaders who both serve under tyrannic kings. As the merciful David defeats the unjust Saul and is rewarded by God with the kingdom of Israel, so too, with the help of God, will William be rewarded a kingdom; being either or both the Netherlands, and the kingdom of God.[8]

See also

Further reading

External links

Look up chiasmus in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.


  1. Ramirez, Matthew Eric (January 2011). "Descanting on Deformity: The Irregularities in Shakespeare's Large Chiasms". Text and Performance Quarterly. 31 (1): 37–49. doi:10.1080/10462937.2010.526240.
  2. Breck, John (1994). The Shape of Biblical Language: Chiasmus in the Scriptures and Beyond. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. ISBN 978-0-8814-1139-3. OCLC 30893460.
  3. Ahmadi, Mohamadnabi. "Semantic and Rhetorical Aspects of Chiasmus in the Holy Quran". Retrieved 27 November 2015.
  4. 1 2 Ceccarelli, Leah (2001). Shaping Science with Rhetoric: The Cases of Dobzhansky, Schrödinger, and Wilson. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. p. 5. ISBN 0226099067. OCLC 45276826.
  5. Lissner, Patricia (2007). Chi-thinking: Chiasmus and Cognition (PDF). University of Maryland. p. 217. Retrieved November 5, 2014.
  6. Kennedy, John. "Inaugural Address". American Rhetoric. American Rhetoric. Retrieved November 5, 2014.
  8. DeLapp, Nevada Levi (2014-08-28). The Reformed David(s) and the Question of Resistance to Tyranny: Reading the Bible in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 87–89. ISBN 9780567655493.
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