Posts Tagged ‘homonym’

Antimetabole is more fun than it sounds

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

“Be precise in the use of words and expect precision from others” —Pierre Abelard

I love words, especially obscure but delightfully precise ones. I enjoy it when authors use language that sends me to the dictionary.

The other day a friend of mine quoted to me “Good fish ain’t cheap and cheap fish ain’t good.” He described this style of phrasing as “chiasmus,” a word I did not know. Upon looking it up I discovered that while the phrase was indeed chiasmus, it was also a good example of a subset of chiasmus called “antimetabole.” According to Wikipedia, many people confuse the two.

Chiasmus refers only to the arrangement of grammatical elements in the sentence, while antimetabole depends on the repetition of the words. The structure of chiasmus is this:

Subject, adverb, verb, conjunction, subject, verb, adverb

Thus, the phrase “He brightly spoke and I replied clearly” is chiasmus. The statement “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant” is antimetabole.

Chiasmus is sufficiently obscure to be the provenance of English lit students and Shakespeare deconstructionists, but antimetabole is one of those far more accessible and amusing little sideshows of the English language, despite its scholarly moniker. Its rhythm and pattern make it particularly memorable to the human mind, and thus many great quotations and aphorisms follow the antimetabole pattern, such as:

“Those who know aren’t talking, and those who are talking don’t know”

“If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” —George S. Patton, Jr.

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” —Joseph Kennedy

Here’s a transcript of a brief Public Radio story on the use of antimetabole during the ‘08 presidential campaign. It starts with what is arguably the most famous example of oratorical antimetabole, when President John Kennedy said in his 1961 Inaugural Address, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Of course, there are many unnamed cousins of antimetabole. There is the homophonic variant, where instead of reversing the order, we change the meaning by changing the spelling, but not the pronunciation, of one of the words. For example, my colleague Jonathan Korman, says “No whiteboards, no design; know whiteboards, know design.” Korman’s phrase is a delightfully secular twist on the fundamentalist Christian version, “No Jesus, no peace; know Jesus, know peace.”

Most crafts encapsulate their wisdom in antimetabole, and airplane pilots have some good ones. They say, “Plan your flight and fly your plan.” My personal favorite pilot saying is “It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than to be in the air wishing you were on the ground.” To drive home the point that caution is a healthy attribute in a pilot they say “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots”.

And then there is the homonymic variant, where spelling remains constant, but the meaning changes. The grammatical order isn’t strictly chiasmus but they are nevertheless fascinating:

“You will be fired with enthusiasm or you will be fired with enthusiasm.” —Vince Lombardi

“We will hang together or we will hang separately” —Benjamin Franklin

Some other favorite examples of antimetabole include:

“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is a big difference.”

“Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.” —Albert Einstein

“I never entertain wicked thoughts; wicked thoughts entertain me.”

“You don’t get what you don’t pay for.”

“Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it, and just because you should do something doesn’t mean that you can do it.”

“I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” —Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower

“Conservatives believe it when they see it; liberals see it when they believe it.” —Rep. Dick Armey

“Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment.”

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” —Albert Einstein

“I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.” —Winston Churchill

If you know of any other good examples of antimetabole, please share them with me.