To Wit: An E-zine On How To Be a Wit

January 8, 2007

This is an E-zine from Thomas Christopher on how to be witty:
"wit n the ability to relate seemingly disparate things so as to illuminate or amuse; an imaginatively perceptive and articulate individual..."
True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
What oft' was thought, but ne'er so well expressed.
--Alexander Pope

At $2 trillion, the creative economy -- design, discovery, and invention -- is approaching 50% of the US economy. The creative class, the workers in the creative economy, comprise about 30% of the US workforce. Wit is not a luxury.


Chiasmus is named after the Greek letter chi, which looks like an X. We might have named it X-ism. You put two words or phrases in one sentence and repeat them in reverse order in a second. It only differs slightly from "antithesis": Antithesis says the opposite words in the same order. Chiasmus says the same words in the opposite order.

Mae West's famously said,

"It's not the men in my life, it's the life in my men."

Will Rogers said

“With Congress — every time they make a joke it's a law. And every time they make a law it's a joke.”

It has been observed:

Men marry women thinking they'll never change. Women marry men thinking they will. Both are disappointed.

And Kennedy is famous for:

Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

Chiasmus can be funny. Chiasmus can be powerful. Where it works, chiasmus almost always produces a memorable line.

The basic way to create a chiasmus is just to try. You need a sentence about your topic containing two words or phrases. It's easiest if they are used as the same part of speech. You should pick a sentence that makes an important point, something you want to be remembered.

Then just try to make it a chiasmus: Follow the sentence with another sentence with the phrases in reverse order. Use antonyms and "not" in the rest of the clause as needed for meaning.

It may not work with the original phrases, so here are a few ways to give yourself more alternatives to choose among:

  • Look up synonyms of the words in a thesaurus to see if those work better.
  • Look up antonyms, rewrite the sentences using the antonyms and try it.
  • Try the two clauses in reverse order.
  • Rewrite to use as many of the same words as possible in parallel positions.
  • If you have a statement containing a word that can be used either as a noun or a verb, try reversing its part of speech in the second clause:

    Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate. --JFK

When choosing among several alternatives:

  • Reject sentences where both clauses say the same thing. They're boring.
  • Prefer parallel clauses with many of the same words in common.

If you practice, chiasmus can become quick and easy. You will be able to do it to a sentence someone has just uttered. This can give you either a good reputation, or a bad one. You can make a really quick come-back if you start speaking before even you know what you're going to say. If you are hurting, you'll zing your friends, if you zing your friends, they'll be hurt, and if they get hurt, they won't be your friends.


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Thomas Christopher, Ph.D.: Seminars, Speeches, Consulting
1140 Portland Place #205, Boulder CO 80304, 303-709-5659,
Books through Prentice Hall PTR, albeit not related to wit: High-Performance Java Platform Computing, ISBN: 0130161640, Web Programming in Python, ISBN: 0-13-041065-9, Python Programming Patterns, ISBN: 0-13-040956-1