“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.
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.
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.)