CHIASMUS [kahy-AZ-muh s]: a reversal in the order of words in two otherwise parallel phrases,


In his inauguration speech of 1961, John F. Kennedy spoke words that have been impossible to forget.

 “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

They may be memorable, but…unfortunately…they have been ignored by many.

Their purpose today, in this blog posting, is to help us understand a literary technique called chiasmus.  It is a rhetorical act from the Greek language which refers to the expressing of a phrase and then turning it around to make a point by reversing the order of the words.  In JFK’s speech he encourages us to refrain from always seeking the benefits that our country can provide to us.  Instead, Kennedy says, we should seek out what we can do for our country.   It is a call to service, a theme that identifies Kennedy’s presidency.

One of the characteristics of the Kennedy administration, for instance, is the establishment of the Peace Corps.   It is a program that seeks out volunteers to train and then serve in the bettering of a society which is in need of leadership and selfless voluntarism.   Kennedy achieves this call by reversing the order of the words from those which call us to get all that we can from our country (of which there is much!) and…instead…to be prepared to offer the best of ourselves.   The Peace Corps has been a commendable agency for nearly 55 years.  Hundreds of men and women (some young and some older) have left the comfort of their homes to go to a developing country to teach, guide, and work beside others in building roads, digging wells for fresh water, learning to read and write, and to learn about and to engage in  good health practices.

A chiasmus is a clever manipulation of language to make a point in a dramatic way.   Its Greek word means to “criss-cross,” as one does by reversing the order of words.  Another example might be:

“Never let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You.”


“The instinct of a man is
to pursue everything that flies from him, and
to fly from all that pursues him.”  (Voltaire)

It is a rhetorical technique frequently used in humor. For instance, Kermit the frog, from Sesame Street, was heard to say:

“Time’s fun when you’re having flies.”

It is the chiasmic reversal of

“Time flies when you’re having fun.”

Only a frog can get away with that reversal.

So, from John F. Kennedy to Kermit the frog, the technique of chiasmus claims its place in American English.  It is a rhetorical feat which adds a great deal to the written word.   Writers have found it to be a subtle, but effective technique…one worth incorporating into a writer’s product.


Photo Credit: Bartleby

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