Given how much I love a well-written speech and how much I hate motivational quotes that are plastered all over Facebook and Twitter, I have a love-hate relationship with the chiasmus.
Chiasmus is a rhetorical device where two or more clauses are reversed in a single sentence or paragraph.
- Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. (John F. Kennedy)
- But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first. (Matthew 20:16)
- In the end, it’s not going to matter how many breaths you took, but how many moments took your breath away. (Shing Xiong)
- Quitters never win, and winners never quit. (Anonymous)
- “If you do not master your rage—” “What, your rage will become your master?” (Mystery Men)
It’s a great rhetorical device, because it’s ear-catching, it’s memorable, and it can zap some life into a dull phrase. When it comes from the mouths of master orators, it’s lyrical and moving. When it shows up in my Facebook stream, I want to punch Facebook in the neck, because it’s being used like the star wipe of motivational quotes.
It’s called the chiasmus because of the Greek letter X, or “chi” (like the “kye” in “sky,” not “chee” as in “tai chi”). Basically, the two parts of the statement cross over like the X, which lends itself to the name. Or, as Toby Ziegler mistakenly called it in an episode of West Wing, the “floating opposites.” (When I was a speechwriter, I searched and searched for more information on floating opposites, and the only references I could find at all were to that West Wing episode, which means it’s not a real thing.)
While it can be a powerful device, it’s often greatly overused by the same people who discovered the Drop Shadow filter on Photoshop 10 years ago. And that’s where the use of chiasmus in motivational quotes becomes so annoying.
It’s such an easy device to use that it gets overused. When all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail. In the hands of some, the chiasmus is just one big claw hammer that is used to pound emotion into every Facebook update this side of “Hang in there, Kitty, Friday’s coming.”
Just remember, if chiasmus is a spice, it’s garlic, not salt. A little garlic goes a lo-o-o-ong way, and should not be sprinkled liberally into every piece you write, let alone every paragraph. Or status update.
Save the chiasmus for a special occasion, when you know it’s going to make a big difference to what you’re writing. Not when you’re exhorting your Facebook friends “You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving.” (Bleah!)