Antimetabole

Playing with language makes language seem like playing.

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.

The Three Musketeers

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,” and General George S. Patton’s famous dictum, “If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” In Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 novel, The Three Musketeers, their motto is “All for one and one for all.”

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan altered our mental framing of politics with an actor’s skillful use of language, including antimetabole. Regarding the Cold War arms race he said, “East and West do not mistrust each other because we are armed; we are armed because we mistrust each other.”

The American political patriarch Joseph Kennedy said, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” His son, President John Kennedy, gave us what is arguably the most famous example of oratorical antimetabole in his 1961 Inaugural Address, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Many 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”. There’s a slight deviation from the strict pattern in the jet fighter pilots’ dictum, “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”

Being a big fan of all things that fly, I spent some years launching model rockets, and also teaching kids about them. To combat silly rules prohibiting launches, I developed this maxim: “Model rocketry might get a kid interested in mathematics, but mathematics won’t get a kid interested in rocketry.”

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, a talented user experience designer, 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.”

There is another homographic variant, where spelling remains constant, but the meaning changes. The grammatical order isn’t strictly chiasmus, either, but they are nevertheless fascinating. Football coach Vince Lombardi is reputed to have said, “You will be fired with enthusiasm or you will be fired with enthusiasm.” Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, demanding solidarity from the American Revolutionaries, said “We will hang together or we will hang separately.”

A few 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

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

“Odds are good but the goods are odd.”

“Good work ain’t cheap, and cheap work ain’t good.”

If you know of other good examples of antimetabole, I’d love to hear about them.