How to keep an idiot busy: use chiasmus!

We know and love the hoary jokes on this theme: You write "How to keep an idiot busy (please turn over)" on both sides of a card, or send people to an animated site like this.


My nominee, from an otherwise very interesting new Wall Street Journal story (subscribers only) about tensions between China and Japan:



Keeping the peace has benefits for both sides. Japan's top trading partner is China, and China is Japan's No. 3, after the European Union and the United States.



There is a certain "I'm my own grandpa" charm to this passage, in addition to its ability to keep anyone busy for hours trying to figure it out. And it's delightful to speculate about where it came from.

What the second half of the sentence meant to say, of course, is "and Japan is China's No. 3, after..." But, probably in unconscious search of the rhetorical flourish known as chiasmus, those involved thought the sentence would sound better if the sequence of names were reversed: Japan is X to China, and China is X to Japan.


Chiasmus (or more precisely, for the older rhetoric students in the crowd, antimetabole - if you've written speeches for a living, you know these things) is the deliberate reversing of words or structures for effect. Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. Since every political speechwriter would like to write a comparably celebrated line, political speeches are studded with reverse-flip structures. Eg, from President Bush's best speech, nine days after the 9/11 attacks: Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies... Theodore Sorensen wrote the first line; Michael Gerson, the second (ooops, wait a minute). I suspect it was with the remembered sound of countless sentences like these in their heads that the WSJ staffers gave us the sentence they did.


Or:maybe Rupert Murdoch's efficiencies are starting at the copy-edit desk? Just a thought.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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