“Not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”

That’s really a throwback to the days of oratory past, isn’t it? How about this:

“While once we asked, ‘How could we possibly prevail over catastrophe,’ now we assert, ‘How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us.’”

It really gets your heart racing a bit, doesn’t it? What a turnaround that represents!

Not just a turnaround in the outlook or course of a country, but – easy enough to see – a turnaround in the sentence. It’s a syntactic mirror of a mental transformation, a discovery, what Arthur Koestler called bisociation, what Edward de Bono called lateral thinking. The first phrase comes along, and the second throws it right back. That’s why the rhetorical figure is called antimetabole, from Greek ἀντιμεταβολή, from ἀντί (anti, ‘in the opposite direction’) and μεταβολή (metabolé, ‘turning around’) – which is in turn from μετα- (which means all sorts of things but as a prefix indicates change or transformation) and βολή (noun, ‘throw’). (Your metabolism is called metabolism because it’s all the constant changes happening in your body.)

But it also turns around and looks back. It puts itself in history by putting history in itself. The two quotes above are from Joe Biden and Amanda Gorman, from Biden’s inauguration today, January 20, 2021. Sixty years ago to the day, January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy said “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It has not been forgotten.

Antimetabole is a long-loved effect for the mental jiujitsu it performs. There is the grand old saying “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” And on the other hand, there is Malcolm X’s “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us.”

There are less solemn instances, too. A type of joke called the Russian reversal is often associated with Yakov Smirnoff but pre-dates him; an example from Laugh-In is “Here in America, is very good, everyone watch television. In old country, television watch you!” Garry Kasparov made more trenchant use of it: “Every country has its own mafia; In Russia, the mafia has its own country.” The movie Mystery Men had a character called The Sphinx who was overly fond of such turns of phrase: “To learn my teachings, I must first teach you how to learn” is a basic example; “When you can balance a tack hammer on your head, you will head off your foes with a balanced attack” is a bit more… convoluted. Some other fine examples, including one from the (not a comedy) movie Sophie’s Choice, are perhaps a little less polite.

This kind of turn of phrase is sometimes called a chiasmus, but chiasmus is a broader term that mainly denotes a reversal of grammatical structure without repetition of words: “By day the frolic, and the dance by night” (Samuel Johnson). I think antimetabole is a more likeable term anyway, not only because it’s longer (six syllables! two dactyls – an-ti-me-ta-bo-le – like two fingers crossing) but because, once you know the etymology, you know that it means what it says and it says what it means.

And when it is used on a grand occasion marking an important change, it uses a new order of words to make words for a new order.

3 responses to “antimetabole

  1. reading (noun) 
    The particular way in which you understand a book, situation, etc.
    Synonym: interpretation
    Examples: A literal reading of the text
    My own reading of events is less optimistic.
    = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
    A reading worth writing about is a writing worth reading.
    This explanation by James Harbeck definitely is one.

  2. Pollard: Ruskin said, when he’s at Paddington he feels he is in hell—and this man Oscar Wilde said, ‘Ah, but—’

    Housman: ‘—when he’s in hell he’ll think he’s only at Paddington.’ It’ll be a pity if inversion is all he is known for.

    —Tom Stoppard, The Invention of Love

  3. Another memorable one I saw recently was about Tejanos in southern Texas:

    “We never crossed the border; the border crossed us.”

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