My favourite rhetorical devices #1 Chiasmus & Antimetabole

If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Stephen Stills sang this line in 1970 and it is an example of a rhetorical device known as Chiasmus. I became interested in this figure of speech after reading Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You by Mardy Grothe, a retired psychologist, management consultant, and platform speaker, who has also written a number of books about language such as Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit & Wisdom From History’s Greatest Wordsmiths, Viva la Repartee: Clever Comebacks & Witty Retorts From History’s Great Wits & Wordsmiths and I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like. If you are not familiar with this structure, I found this piece online explaining the difference between chiasmus and antimetabole, a closely related literary device:

Many literary scholars use these terms interchangeably, though each term refers to a different literary device. Scholars generally know that chiasmus occurs when a phrase is repeated, but reversed, to make a point or emphasize an action. Antimetabole is very similar to chiasmus, but the words and grammatical structure must be reversed, since simply reversing the meaning is not enough. Knowing this, scholars may discover that all instances of antimetabole are also chiasmus, but the reverse is not always true.

The definition of chiasmus is a clause that is inversely repeated. The only requirement of a chiastic phrase is that the two clauses within the sentence must have opposite meanings. For instance, Havelock Ellis’s famous quote, “Charm is a woman’s strength, strength is a man’s charm,” is an example of chiasmus only. Here, the meanings in the two clauses are opposite, but the grammatical structure and the wording are different, meaning it cannot be an example of antimetabole.

Antimetabole is defined as a literary device that reverses the word order in a phrase to juxtapose the meaning. One example is Mae West’s catchphrase, “It’s not the men in my life, it’s the life in my men.” Here, the exact same words, grammatical structure, and rhythm are used create the second clause with the opposite meaning. Many scholars view this device as a subcategory of chiasmus because its rules are stricter and very closely defined.

Anyway, I don’t want to get too bogged down in all the technical stuff. Here are some of my favourites:

I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me. Winston Churchill


The right to bear arms is slightly less ridiculous than the right to arm bears. Chris Addison


It is better to be looked over than overlooked. Mae West, in Belle of the Nineties (1934)


Recreational wordplayers wonder why we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway. Richard Lederer


Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. John F. Kennedy


Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children, and no theories. John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester*


It’s always the same. Either it’s rainy with sunny intervals, or sunny with rainy intervals. Pat DuPre, on Wimbledon weather


Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life. Jeremy Thorpe, after Harold Macmillan fired seven members of his cabinet in 1962


A good ad should be like a good sermon; it must not only comfort the afflicted, it also must afflict the comfortable. Bernice Fitzgibbons was the director of advertising at Macy’s department store in New York City.


They say the movies should be more like life. I think life should be more like the movies. Myrna Loy


I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy. Dorothy Parker


Many a man owes his success to his first wife and his second wife to his success. Jim Backus


We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us. Malcolm X (Didn’t Cole Porter use this line in Anything Goes?)


It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.  Lyndon B. Johnson, on J. Edgar Hoover


Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good. Dr. Samuel Johnson to an aspiring writer


This is about principled compromise, not compromised principles. John Hume, on Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday peace accord


I always say, keep a diary and someday it’ll keep you. Mae West, in Every Day’s a Holiday (1937)


I am a marvellous housekeeper. Every time I leave a man, I keep his house. Zsa Zsa Gabor


In what other language do people play at a recital and recite at a play? Richard Lederer


A hard man is good to find. Mae West


This isn’t a bar for writers with a drinking problem; it’s for drinkers with a writing problem. Judy Joice




*This cannot possibly be correct John Wilmot, second Earl of. Rochester was a famous 17th poet and author of Signor Dildo. This quote sound like it comes from the 20th century at the earliest.

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