How to keep an idiot busy: use chiasmus!

By James Fallows

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2007/08/how-to-keep-an-idiot-busy-use-chiasmus/7698/