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.

Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” John F. Kennedy’s immortal line has a powerful ring in the ears of all, but only few know the name of the rhetorical device being used, that is, the device that reverses the order of words in parallel phrases.

Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You

That rhetorical device is chiasmus, the topic of Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You (1999), by quotation collector Dr. Mardy Grothe. When I first read that title, it made no sense, but then I realized that both kiss and fool were being used alternatively as noun and verb. Thus, it was saying “Never X or Y,” but X and Y were worded so similarly that it caused some confusion.

After this initial shock, however, it becomes much easier to read chiastic phrases. These phrases (actually, sentences) come in many variations, and can even be separated between two speakers. For example, a member of Parliament once asked Winston Churchill, known for great speeches, “You heard my talk yesterday. What could I have done to put more fire into my speech?” Churchill replied:

What you should have done is to have put your speech into the fire.

Some other memorable chiastic lines:

You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.

by Ray Bradbury, in his advice to writers.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

by Joseph P. Kennedy.

When you have nothing to say, say nothing.

by Charles Caleb Colton.

It is best to learn as we go, not go as we have learned.

by Leslie Jeanne Sahler.

Take care to get what you like or you will be forced to like what you get.

by George Bernard Shaw.

There are amusing people who do not interest, and interesting people who do not amuse.

by Benjamin Disraeli.

The conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerrilla wins if he does not lose.

by Henry A. Kissinger.

Why are women . . . so much more interesting to men than men are to women?

by Virginia Woolf.

Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.

by Dr. Samuel Johnson, to an aspiring writer.

He defined wit, and wit defined him.

by Mark Nicholls, on Oscar Wilde.

Money will not make you happy, and happy will not make you money.

by Groucho Marx.

Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.

by John F. Kennedy.

A politician wouldn’t dream of being allowed to call a columnist the things a columnist is allowed to call a politician.

by Max Lerner.

Simply Amazing. Amazingly Simple.

Apple’s slogan for the iMac computer.

When buyers don’t fall for prices, prices must fall for buyers.


I flee who chases me, and chase who flees me.

by Ovid, on love.

Love makes time pass, time makes love pass.

by Victor Hugo.

If God created us in his own image we have more than reciprocated.

by Voltaire.

With this book, I’ve certainly liked what I read and read what I liked.

(Edit: Also, if you want some commentary about the book’s subtitle, Chiasmus and a World of Quotations That Say What They Mean and Mean What They Say, see my follow-up post Saying What You Mean and Meaning What You Say.)

New Laptop, and Laptop Comparison

Less than a week ago I received a new laptop, one that is far faster than my old one, which is one month away from being four years old. Needless to say, this will be a very one-sided laptop comparison, but it will show just how quickly computer technology advances over a short amount of time.

Old New
Model Dell Latitude D610 Dell Studio XPS 16
Bought May 2006 April 2010
Cost (Approx.) $1100 $1400
Processor Intel Pentium M, 1.73 GHz Intel Core i5 M430 @ 2.27 GHz
RAM 1 GB (2×512 MB) 4 GB (2×2 GB)
Primary Storage Fujitsu 40 GB Hard Drive Samsung 128 GB Solid State Drive
Graphics Card (Integrated) ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4670, 1 GB
Operating System Windows XP Windows 7
Screen (Resolution) 14.1″ SXGA+ (1400×1050) 15.6″ FHD Widescreen (1920×1080)
Keyboard Standard Backlit
Wireless Dell Wireless 1370 WLAN Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6200

As expected, the newer laptop is far superior. I’m not sure whether Moore’s Law held, but there is an apparent exponential increase in processing power. The increase in cost comes mainly from the Solid State Drive (SSD); when choosing specs on the laptop, I found that a 128 GB SSD costs $154 more than a 500 GB normal hard drive. More on this in the next paragraph.

My first reaction to the new laptop had to do with the SSD, a relatively new technology, though it has been in existence for years. Basically, your standard old hard drive is a spinning disk, and for the computer to access any given information, it would have to move mechanical parts at very fast rates. But with the SSD, there are no moving parts. And because of this, when I first turned on my new laptop, I heard a very peculiar sound—the sound of silence.

The second thing different was Windows 7. It took a while to get used to, but I still like XP’s relative simplicity.

Third was the widescreen resolution. I was accustomed to a 4:3 ratio, and 16:9 was a bit different. I like it though, as the screen is significantly larger, and it’s far easier to have multiple documents on the screen at once.

Fourth was sheer speed. With a much more advanced processor, the new laptop seemed to load everything instantly; this is also a consequence of SSD. Programs install super fast, webpages load faster—just about any conceivable action is done more quickly. What are really remarkable are the start-up and shut-down times, primarily due to the SSD. Time from cold boot to log-in screen is cut in half, and the time between log-in and having the desktop loaded becomes nearly instant. Shutting down the computer feels many times faster.

The fifth and final difference I would like to point out (there are of course many more minor ones) is the graphics card. While StarCraft and WarCraft III ran fluently on the old integrated graphics, StarCraft II (or rather, as of today, the beta) did not. In fact, I’d like to show the difference between the two, by showing two screen-recorded videos of StarCraft II. This video is from my old laptop:

And from the new one:

In the second video, StarCraft II is running in far higher graphics level and resolution (check out the HD resolutions), and yet runs much more smoothly. Overall, this computer is doing a lot better.

The Great Gatsby

Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!”

This poem appeared as the epigraph for The Great Gatsby, a 1925 work by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The Great Gatsby

This American classic explores the trivialities and superficialities of the 1920s, the Jazz Age, and how they are a false illusion for the American Dream, which Gatsby (“the man who gives his name to this book” [2]) has seemingly accomplished, but in fact have only distorted. Both Gatsby and Tom (Nick’s friend from Yale) are both super wealthy; Nick, the narrator, lives in a more modest manner. Daisy is Nick’s second cousin and Tom’s wife, but the conflict of the book revolves around Gatsby’s love for Daisy, as he sees her as his sole goal.

Here’s an example of the superficiality:

Daisy (to Nick): I forgot to ask you something, and it’s important. We heard you were engaged to a girl out West.
Tom: That’s right. We heard that you were engaged.
Nick: It’s a libel. I’m too poor.
Daisy: But we heard it. We heard it from three people, so it must be true. [19]

That last statement, which is the epitome of gossip in literature, still retains its initial shock factor, and is even funny. Also ridiculous are Tom’s statements on science:

Tom: I read somewhere that the sun’s getting hotter every year. It seems that pretty soon the earth’s going to fall into the sun—or wait a minute—it’s just the opposite—the sun’s getting colder every year. [118]

This was written of course well before the theories of global warming and global cooling were popularized. But the most shocking events of the book are Gatsby’s parties, which are beyond extravagant.

I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby’s house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited—they went there. They got into automobiles which bore them out to Long Island, and somehow they ended up at Gatsby’s door. Once there they were introduced by somebody who knew Gatsby, and after that they conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with an amusement park. Sometimes they came and went without having met Gatsby at all, came for the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission. [41]

The book was well written. I just didn’t like it so much—perhaps it was because I had read a few other great classics just before reading this, and in comparison, it didn’t seem very special. (I’m referring to Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, and Siddhartha.)

The Aims of Education

One book I read on my trip to the University of Chicago was a compilation of Aims of Education addresses, which are given at the beginning of the year to first-year students at the University of Chicago. I’ll refer to the publication as The Aims of Education. (Note: This is NOT the book of the same name by Alfred North Whitehead.)

Rockefeller Chapel
Rockefeller Chapel, site of the Aims of Education address. Photo credits to The University of Chicago.

I had finished this book before stepping on campus, so it was good, in my mind at least, to have an idea of what the faculty thought of education and the university, especially the concept of liberal (or liberal arts) education and its meaning in the modern world. But the most compelling speech in the collection, I thought, was Andrew Abbott’s “Aims of Education Address” of 2002. (Here is an online text of the speech.)

The speaker is quite frank, admitting, “This is only the third or fourth such oration that I’ve given in my life. And you’re not an easy audience.”

He then congratulates the entering class, saying they have “already won.” That is:

[T]he real work predicting your future success is done not by prestige of college but by other factors—mainly the things for which you were admitted to that selective college in the first place—personal talents, past work, and parental resources both social and intellectual. The estimate of your future worldly success that we can make on the basis of knowing those things already will not be improved much by knowing what you actually do here. Moreover, admission itself sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy; since you got in here, people in the future will assume you’re good, no matter what you do or how you do while you are here.

Why did I embolden that sentence? Because Abbott is basically saying it doesn’t matter what you do once you’ve gotten in. Evidence?

[T]he best nationwide figures I have seen suggest that a one-full-point increment in college GPA—from 2.8 to 3.8, for example—is worth about an additional nine percent in income four years after college. Now that’s not much result for a huge amount of work.

I’m sorry to bore you with this income story but I want to kill the idea that hard work in higher education produces worldly success. The one college experience variable that actually does have some connection with later worldly success is major. But in the big nationwide studies, most of that effect comes through the connection between major and occupation…. But within the narrow range of occupation and achievement we have at the University of Chicago, there is really no strong relation between what you study and your later occupation in later life.

Here comes the interesting part. Abbott proceeds to give statistics as to which majors obtain which occupations, and which occupations are held by which majors, all from a sample of UChicago alumni.

Take the mathematics concentrators: 20 percent software development and support, 14 percent college professors, 10 percent in banking and finance, 7 percent secondary or elementary teachers, and seven percent in nonacademic research; the rest are scattered. Physics concentrators are similar, but more of them are engineers and fewer are bankers. Biology produces 40 percent doctors, 16 percent professors, 11 percent nonacademic researchers, and the other third scattered. Obviously, there are a number of seeming pathways here. All the science concentrators lead to professorships and nonacademic research. And biology and chemistry often lead to medicine. But there are also many diversions from those pathways. We’ve got a biology concentrator who is now a writer, another who is now a musician. We’ve got two mathematicians who are now lawyers, and a physics concentrator who is now a psychotherapist.

UChicago is known though for its economics program. What about it?

[T]his is today identified as overwhelmingly the most careerist major…24 percent in banking and finance, 15 percent in business consulting, 14 percent lawyers, 10 percent in business administration or sales, 7 percent in computers, and the other 30 percent scattered.

Other social sciences?

Historians are often lawyers (24 percent) and secondary teachers (15 percent), but the other 60 percent are all over the map. Political scientists have 24 percent lawyers, 7 percent each professors and government administrators, and perhaps 20 percent in the various business occupations; the rest are scattered. Psychologists, surprisingly, are also about 20 percent in the various business occupations, 11 percent lawyers, and 10 percent professors; the rest are scattered. Thus in the social sciences, the news is that there are lots of ways to got to law school and to get into business. And there are the usual unusuals: the sociology major who is an actuary, the two psychologists in government administration, the political science concentrator now in computers.


English majors have scattered to the four winds: 11 percent of them to elementary and secondary teaching, 10 percent to various business occupations, 9 percent to communications, 9 percent to lawyering, 5 percent to advertising; the rest scattered. Of the philosophers, 30 percent are lawyers and 18 percent software people. I defy anybody to make sense out of that. AGain, the connections include some obviousthings and some non-obvious things. We have two English majors who are now artists and one who is an architect. We have a philosophy major who is a farmer and two who are doctors.

Now, what’s really interesting is when the stats are seen the other way around, from occupations to majors.

Of the lawyers, 16 percent came from economics, 15 percent from political science, 12 percent from history, 7 percent each from philosophy, English, and psychology; and 5 percent from public policy. There was at least one lawyer from each of the following: anthropology, art and design, art history, biology, chemistry, East Asian languages and civilizations, fundamentals, general studies in the humanities, geography, geophysical sciences, Germanic languages and literatures, mathematics, physics, religion and humanities, Romance languages and literatures, Russian and other Slavic languages and literatures, and sociology. You get the point. There is absolutely no concentration from which you cannot become a lawyer.

He then goes on with doctors and bankers/financers, which have similarly large numbers of seeming anomalies. “What you do here does not determine your occupation in any way.”

The next point Abbott brings up is the perceived notion that although a person will in the future forget specific knowledge learned from college education, he or she will retain the general skills. He states, however, “Since this is the argument I have myself made most strongly in the past, I shall take special care to demolish it.”

College graduates, and especially those from elite colleges, are deemed to have these better “general skills.” But the question is whether or not college students already possessed such general skills when they entered. As Abbott put it:

While we do know that people acquire these skills over the four years they are in college, we are not at all clear that it is the experience of college instruction that produces them. First, the kinds of young people who go on to college, and certainly to elite colleges like this one, are quite different from those who do not. If in our analyses we do not have perfect statistical control for all those differences, college may appear to have effects that in fact really originate in the differences between those who go to college and those who don’t.

To this selection bias effect (as it is called), we can add the equally difficult problem of unmeasured variables, Changes that we might attribute to college instruction could actually derive from other things. College students are likely to have more challenging jobs, for example, than students who don’t go to college. They spend more time hanging out with smart people. They live in an environment where cognitive skills are explicitly valued. The differences of skill could be produced by these things rather than by the actual educational experience of the college classroom. Moreover, since many cognitive skills cannot be shown to differ seriously between those who have experienced college and those who have not, much of the skill increase could come from simple maturation. You could get more skilled just because you’ve lived a few more years.

In other words, even though there is a positive correlation between a college education and critical thinking skills (which he later discusses), the tests are not normalized for age, and the increase in critical thinking skill might be a result of maturation, not only college education.

I’m going to jump forward in the speech a few pages. In the skipped sections he discusses further why a college education may not be so useful, especially one from an elite university. Yet, it seems ironic that he would be saying this to a group of students who are just about to begin four years of their life at such a place. So what, then, is the aim of education?

So the long and short of it is that there is no instrumental reason to get an education, to study in your courses, or to pick a concentration and lose yourself in it. It won’t get you anything you won’t get anyway or get some other way. So forget everything you ever thought about all these instrumental reasons for getting an education.

The reason for getting an education here—or anywhere else—is that it is better to be educated than not to be. It is better in and of itself. Not because it is a means to some other end. It is better because it is better. Note that this statement implies that the phrase “aims of education” is nonsensical; education is not a thing of which aims can be predicated. It has no aim other than itself.

But surely education teaches us the skills to survive in a changing world! Abbott’s response: Not quite. “That is because the skills change, too. Writing was a far more important skill a century or even half a century ago than it is today.”

If education has no aim, then what is it?

By education I am going to mean the ability to make more and more complex, more and more profound and extensive, the meanings that we attach to events and phenomena. When we are reading a text, we call this adducing of new meanings interpretation. When we are doing mathematics, we call this giving of meaning intuition and proof. When we are reading history, we call it a sense of historical context. When we are doing social science, we call if the sociological imagination. In all these areas, to be educated is to have the habit of finding many and diverse new meanings to attach to whatever events or phenomena we examine. We have lots of standard routines for doing this—interpretive paradigms, heuristic methods, theoretical schemes, investigative disciplines, and so on. But education is not about these paradigms and methods and disciplines. Rather it is the instinctive habit of looking for new meanings, of questioning old ones, of perpetually playing with and fighting about the meanings we assign to events and texts and phenomena. We can teach you the paradigms and the methods, but we can’t teach you the habit of playing with them. That’s something you must find within yourself.

In this sense, education plays the opposite role of what we would conventionally expect: “Education doesn’t have aims. It is the aim of other things.” Now, there is one passage that I wish to quote, not because it follows directly in the argument, but because of a tie to something I read on the flight back from Chicago—Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. First, Abbott:

As teachers, we try to entice you into this habit of education by a variety of exercises, just as a Zen monk tries to get a novice to achieve enlightenment by giving him a koan to meditate on. Note that the Zen koan is not enlightenment but rather is a means to enlightenment…. They are exercises we give you hoping that they will somehow help you find the flash of enlightenment that is education.

This is really the point of Siddhartha, the same lesson but taken from different angle. In Siddhartha, the main character by the same name rejects Gautama (the Buddha)’s teachings precisely because he knows he will not obtain the truth he seeks if he tries to learn it from someone else, even if that someone else is the Exalted One: he must experience it himself.

Back to Abbott’s speech. I’ll let Abbott give the concluding thoughts:

To put it simply, the system as it currently exists trusts you with the whole store. Education is the most valuable, the most human, and the most humane basis around which a person can build him- or herself. And you are here offered an unparalleled set of resources for finding the flash of enlightenment that kindles education within you. But it is in practice completely your decision whether you seek that flash. You can go through here and do nothing. Or you can go through here like a tourist, listening to lectures here and there, consulting your college Fodor’s for “important intellectual attractions” that “should not be missed during your stay.” Or you can go through here mechanically, stuffing yourself with materials and skills till you’re gorged with them. And whichever of these three you choose, you’ll do just fine in the world after you leave. You will be happy and you will be successful.

Or on the other hand you can seek education. It will not be easy. We have only helpful exercises for you. We can’t give you the thing itself. And there will be extraordinary temptations—to spend whole months wallowing in a concentration that doesn’t work for you because you have some myth about your future, to blow off intellectual effort in all but one area because you are too lazy to challenge yourself, to wander off to Europe for a year of enlightenment that rapidly turns into touristic self-indulgence. There will be the temptations of timidity, too, temptations to forgo all experimentation, to miss the glorious randomness of college, to give up the prodigal possibilities that—let me tell you—you will never find again; temptations to go rigidly through the motions and then wonder why education has eluded you.

There are no aims of education. The aim is education. If—and only if—you seek it . . . education will find you.

Welcome to the University of Chicago.


I carried four books with me on my University of Chicago visit, and managed to finish three between airports, planes, and free time. Actually, one was not really a book—it was The Aims of Education, a 208-page publication by the University of Chicago on an orientation speech that is by tradition on the aims of education. The second was On Writing Well by William Zinsser, which I had started prior to the trip. Third was this book, Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Fourth, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: this was assigned for school, and was ironically (or not) the one that I did not finish.

Anyways, Siddhartha (1922) is the life story of a boy who goes on an adventure to find his spiritual destiny. The protagonist has the same name as Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, but is in fact a different person—Siddhartha (from now on the name Siddhartha will refer to the fictional character) meets Gautama in the tale.


Siddhartha is born the son of a Brahmin, the exalted class in Hindu society. He is smart, lovable, and kind, but also curious, curious about the world, about the soul, about the Soul One, Atman. When he is young a group of shramanas pass through Siddhartha’s city on a pilgrimage, and Siddhartha resolves to join their ascetic ways. His friend Govinda knows this: “Now it is beginning, now Siddhartha is going his own way, now a seed has been planted, and as his fate sprouts, so does mine.”

His chief strength is his sense of self direction; that is, he seeks spiritual meaning on his own. This is seen no clearer than when Siddhartha meets with Gautama, and even though all the holy men around him are becoming Gautama’s disciples, Siddhartha rejects Gautama’s teachings—not so much the content, but the teaching itself, for Siddhartha realizes that the spiritual truth he is searching for cannot be taught, it must be experienced.

Siddhartha had a single goal before him, one and one only: to become empty, empty of thirst, empty of desire, empty of dreams, empty of joy and pain. To die away from himself, no longer to be I, to find the peace of the emptied heart, by thinking away from the self to stand open to the miraculous: this was his goal.

Another profound passage:

“Most people, Kamala, are like falling leaves, which blow and turn in the air, and stagger and tumble to the ground. But others, fewer, are like stars, they travel in a fixed orbit, no wind reaches them, in themselves they have their law and their course. Among all the scholars and shramanas, of whom I knew many, was one of this type, a Perfect One, I can never forget him. That is the one called Gautama, the Exalted One, the prophet of the teachings. A thousand disciples hear his teaching every day, every hour they follow his precepts, but they are all falling leaves, in themselves they do not have the teachings and the law.”

Such are the personal and yet universal thoughts of the enlightened. I would encourage anyone who is seeking the truth, no matter of what religion or opinion, to read this book.