• chiasmus •
kai-ęz-mês • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: Reversing the order of the subject and predicate in the second of two otherwise parallel clauses, as did Mae West when she proclaimed, "It's not the men in my life that counts—it's the life in my men."
Notes: Today's word is a variant of a Greek word that English borrowed three ways: chiasmus (plural chiasmi pronounced [kai-az-mai]) is the usual word referring to the literary device we are discussing today. The adjective for chiasmus is chiastic, as a chiastic sentence. Chiasma and chiasm come from the same Greek word but refer to things having the shape "X", such as the optic chiasm(a), the point in the brain at which the nerves of the right and left eyes cross each other. The adjective for these words is either chiasmal or chiasmatic.
In Play: Some types of chiasmus are outdated: "Her hair shimmered with moonlight; electrifying were her eyes." Several others, however, not only survive today but thrive: "Hardy Belcher promised to eat all the hotdogs and all the hotdogs he did eat." The type used by Mae West, reversing the sense of the first clause in the second, also remains prevalent: "Never let a fool kiss you or a kiss fool you". That's chiasmus.
Word History: Today's Good Word is the Latin modification of Greek chiasmos "crisscrossing, syntactic inversion". The Greek noun was made from the verb chiazein "to X out, to mark with or as an X", based on the name of the letter X in Greek: chi. No one seems to know where this word came from; it probably was simply the pronunciation of the letter (like the CH in German or Scots English) plus a random vowel sound. (Today we should thank Lee Blue for suggesting today's Good Word, so Lee Blue we certainly do thank.)
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