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.

Anonymous.

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.)