When John F. Kennedy made the famous statement “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” he was making use of the rhetorical device of chiasmus.
Chiasmus is a word which comes to the English language through Latin which in turn took it from Greek word χίασμα. If you’re having trouble reading this word out loud, remember that χ is chi, ι is iota , α is alpha, σ is sigma, and μ is mu. χίασμα means “crossing” and comes in turn from another Greek word, χιάζω (ζ is zeta and ω is omega), meaning “to shape like the letter Χ.” So chiasmus means an x-type crossing.
In John Kennedy’s statement your country and you are repeated in an inverted order in the second part of the sentence, leading to a rhetorical x-type crossing: a chiasmus.
In the Kennedy example both your country and you are noun phrases (although you is a single word, it can be considered as a noun phrase according to X-bar linguistic theory, a great way of understanding foreign languages and the topic of a future blog). However, chiasmus can be performed on words operating as different parts of speech as well, as in “Don’t sweat the petty things–and don’t pet the sweaty things.” The noun sweat becomes the adjective sweaty and vice versa.
Ever tried repeating the sentence “Three old men felt smart” three times fast? The result may be a bit of silly chiasmus.
Chiasmus is more than just an amusing rhetorical device however; in fact many politicians (or their speechwriters), such as Kennedy, took advantage of the extra punch it gives to speech. The above Kennedy adage comes from his Inaugural address, as does, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” In 2008 Clinton said “People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power,” and later on we have Barack Obama saying “My job is not to represent Washington to you, but to represent you to Washington.” Going backwards in time to the 19th century we have Frederick Douglass saying “If black men have no rights in the eyes of the white men, of course the whites can have none in the eyes of the blacks.”
Going further back in time we find examples of chiasmus scattered throughout Shakespeare, the Greek philosophers and dramatists, and the Bible, just to name a few of the more historical sources of its usage. Many are passages that we are familiar with, such as this passage from the Gospel of Matthew, diagrammed schematically:
A “But many that are first
B shall be last;
B1 and the last
A1 shall be first.”
Experts tell us that chiasmus goes far beyond words. In the 2014 volume Chiasmus and Culture, editors Anthony Paul and Boris Wiseman open the introduction by saying “The essays in this volume are concerned with chiastic inversion, and its place in social interactions, cultural creation, and more generally human thought and experience. They explore from a variety of angles what the unsettling logic of chiasmus has to tell us about the world, human relations, cultural patterns, psychology, artistic and poetic creation. They treat chiasmus not only as a figure of speech, but as a generative principle, an aesthetic idea, a method of composition, a tool of ideological manipulation, a matrix of social interaction, a philosophical problem, a metaphor, an elemental image or sign.”
Learning about chiasmus – like learning about languages in general – really means learning about our human nature.