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Chiasmus has enjoyed a special place in the hearts of those who have a fascination with words at play. It seems fitting that language maven William Safire should compose a chiastic motto to guide his column-writing efforts:
"Better a jerk that knees
than a knee that jerks."
This is chiastic wordplay at its best. Safire couldn't have crafted a better way of saying he'd rather be seen as a dirty fighter than as an ideological automaton.
Arguably the best toast ever created, combining punning with chiasmus, goes all the way back to Edwardian England in the 1890s:
"Here's champagne for our real friends,
and real pain for our sham friends."
Nobody appreciated the playful use of language more than famed lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson. One of his peers, John Gay, had shopped his play The Beggar's Opera around to London theaters, only to have it rejected again and again. Finally he took it to producer John Rich, who saw the play's potential and helped make it a huge success. The legendary wordsmith's comment was soon being repeated all over London:
"It made Rich gay
and Gay rich."
More chiastic wordplay follows.
* * *
"The two greatest highway menaces
are drivers under twenty-five
going over sixty-five
and drivers over sixty-five
going under twenty-five."
"Beauty sounds as ugly
as ugliness sounds beautiful."
"A scout troop consists of twelve little kids dressed like schmucks
following a big schmuck dressed like a kid."
"Architect, n. One who drafts a plan of your house,
and plans a draft of your money."
"The gambling known as business
looks with austere disfavor upon
the business known as gambling."
"You have to know how
to accept rejection
and reject acceptance."
Ray Bradbury, advice to writers
"In the Halls of Justice
the only justice is in the halls."
"They have to be extra careful with those two-way words.
I mean, they can prick their finger,
but they can't finger their prick."
George Carlin, on the effect of censors on performers
"Have you noticed that your shit is stuff
and their stuff is shit?" George Carlin
"Errol Flynn died on a 70-foot boat with a 17-year-old girl.
Walter has always wanted to go that way,
but he's going to settle for a 17-footer with a 70-year-old."
Betsy Maxwell Cronkite, on husband, Walter
"As a young man I used to have
four supple members and a stiff one.
Now I have four stiff and one supple."
Henri-Eugène duc d'Aumale
"Whether a man's lust for big-breasted women
is a hunger for mountains
or his hunger for mountains is
a lust for big-breasted women is a moot question."
"I'd Rather Have a Bottle in Front of Me
(Than a Frontal Lobotomy)."
Randy Hanzlick, song title
"Man can be destroyed but not defeated.
Man can be defeated but not destroyed."
"Punctuation is made for man,
not man for punctuation."
"I don't suffer fools,
and I like to see fools suffer."
"Recreational wordplayers wonder why
we drive on a parkway
and park on a driveway."
"In what other language do people
play at a recital
and recite at a play?"
Richard Lederer, on "Crazy English"
"In some parts of Ireland,
the sleep which knows no waking
is always followed by
a wake which knows no sleeping."
Mary Wilson Little
"The telephone is
the greatest nuisance
the greatest convenience
"In the blue grass region,
A paradox was born:
The corn was full of kernels
And the colonels full of corn."
John Marshall, describing Kentucky
"I despise the pleasure
of pleasing people that I despise."
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
"The story of the whale swallowing Jonah ...
borders greatly on the marvelous;
but it would have approached nearer to the idea of miracle
if Jonah had swallowed the whale."
"There are painters
who transform the sun into a yellow spot,
but there are others who, thanks to their art and intelligence,
transform a yellow spot into the sun."
"Better a witty fool
than a foolish wit."
in Twelfth Night
"Don't sweat the petty things
and don't pet the sweaty things."
"If you talk to God, you are praying;
if God talks to you, you have schizophrenia."
"We usually call our blunders mistakes,
and our friends style our mistakes blunders."
"A monk asks a superior if it is permissible
to smoke while praying.
The superior says certainly not.
Next day, the monk asks the superior if it is permissible
to pray while smoking.
That, says the superior, is not merely permissible, it is admirable."
George F. Will