Among the incomparable Mae's witticisms is the crack: "It's not the men in my life, it's the life in my men." Mae knew a lively man when she saw one, as well as a great rhetorical device.
That rhetorical device is called chiasmus, and it comes from the Greek letter chi, expressed in English as a symbol like an X. It refers to switching the order of two words, or two syntactical elements, in a mirror-like or X-like way.
Look at the switching of "men" and "life" in the Mae West quote, which switches the noun and the object of the preposition. Study of the Latin classics taught me chiasmus, but the best, and most entertaining way to learn about it now is a wonderful little book Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You by Dr. Mardy Grothe,
Dr. Mardy's book not only explains chiasmus clearly and effectively, it also contains a wealth of fabulous quotes that show it in action. And what fantastic quotes they are. Almost everyone is surprised when they realize how many aphorisms and witticisms are built around this grammatical structure. Chiasmus permeates political speech, which is unsurprising when we consider that the Greeks and Romans studied rhetoric, or grammar, for purposes of politcal persuasion. It's an elegant and clever way to make a phrase stick in the mind and get the mind unstuck. And there it is again!
Rhetoric, grammar, and food: Women, food, and god. Cicero's dictum that we should eat to live and not live to eat is perhaps another way of getting at some of the themes in Geneen Roth's new book. And that is a way of mirroring the opening of this piece, in a piece of, you guessed it, chiasmus. And now it's time for a piece of cake.
Are you familiar with chiasmus? What is your favorite chiastic quote?
Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's currently a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and is currently teaching English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.