Saying What You Mean and Meaning What You Say

The subtitle of Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You is Chiasmus and a World of Quotations That Say What They Mean and Mean What They Say. Dr. Mardy Grothe’s chiastic definition of chiasmus is clever, but someone beat him to the saying—or meaning—by saying what he meant and meaning what he said over a hundred years earlier, in 1865—Lewis Carroll.

Alice and the Mad Tea Party

Here is an excerpt from chapter VII, “A Mad Tea-party,” from Alice in Wonderland:

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least—at least I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”

“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, which seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”

Here is chiasmus gone wrong! Of course not every rhetorical device can be used with any combination of words. A mixed metaphor, for instance, or simply a bad metaphor does not convey the point. Neither does poorly constructed chiasmus. For example, I’ll use a quotation I mentioned in the linked post. “He defined wit, and wit defined him” (in reference to Oscar Wilde) is witty. Clearly this would not have been the case with other words substituting wit: “He defined class, and class defined him” is not classy.

Anyhow, what Carroll wrote involved the reversal of words in a chiastic manner, but using phrases that don’t work. We may excuse Alice’s thinking that saying what you mean is the same as meaning what you say, as they really are the same (mostly); we’ll look instead at the three counterexamples.

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

First, the Hatter’s argument is a logical fallacy because he attacked the way Alice constructed her sentence, not her sentence itself. That is, Alice said “I X what I Y” is the same thing as “I Y what I X” only for one particular set of values for X and Y (mean and say). The Hatter says Alice is wrong because if what Alice says is right, then all statements “I X what I Y” and “I Y what I X” are true, and he can come up with a counterexample (X = see, Y = eat). Of course you normally see whatever you eat, but you don’t normally eat whatever you see.

“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”

At first it may appear that Carroll just lists three plain counterexamples, but it turns out the second and third have some kind of twist. The second one, by the March Hare, involves the word “like,” which is subjective. Thus, he confounds the issue because this statement may be true for one person and untrue for another.

“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, which seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”

This one is very ironic because of the context in which the Dormouse is speaking—he’s talking in his sleep. For him, “I breathe when I sleep” is indeed the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe.”

There, I’ve said what I mean and meant what I say.

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