A chiastic bird

It’s been a while since I posted chiastic (transpositional, Spooneristic) wordplay, so here’s a Bizarro from 12/16/08:


The title To Kill a Mockingbird  –> To Mock a Killingbird by transposition (exchange, reversal), of kill and mock (the sort of exchange seen in Spoonerisms as inadvertent errors). Formally  of interest because the process “goes into” a compound word, to affect one of its parts (mocking), and also into an affixed word, to affect its base (mock). On the conceptual side, this particular kind of wordplay is shallow, thin, since only one of the two paired situations is represented in the cartoon: having served its purpose as base for transposition, the book To Kill a Mockingbird plays no further role in the proceedings.

Formal exchange relationships. In deliberate creations — in  riddles and, more generally, in  jokes and cartoons. And in inadvertent errors, Spoonerisms. In both cases, the formal set-up has, for two elements X and Y of similar type (words, for example),

… X … Y … –> … Y … X …

A joke example of word exchange, treating the relationship as a special case of the figure of speech chiasmus:


The exchange here “goes into” the words sweaty and petty (X = sweat, Y = pet); morphologically, sweaty is the V sweat + the derivational suffix y, but though petty orthographically contains pet and phonologically contains /pɛt/, petty is not morphologically the V pet + the derivational suffix –y, so there’s a further element of playing around here.

In #1, X = kill and Y = mock, and the exchange goes into one element of a compound (the mocking of mockingbird), and then further into an affixed word (to get at the mock of mocking).

These are deliberate creations, and the transposed expressions make sense. In fact, a significant part of their humor lies in their being comprehensible but unexpected, astonishing, or real-world absurd.

In unintended errors, the transposed expressions are usually syntactically well-formed — because the exchanged expressions X and Y are usually of the same syntactic category — but, in contrast to the deliberate creations, they are also usually bizarre in meaning, often bordering on the incomprehensible, and rarely funny. They’re just baffling.

From the appendix to Fromkin’s Speech Errors as Linguistic Evidence (1973):

reversals going into compounds, from section P on Word Reversals:

— ex. 6 a fifty-pound bag of dog food –> a fifty-pound dog of bag food

— ex. 27 the problem of subject raising –> the subject of problem raising

reversal going into affixed words, from section S on Independence of Grammatical Morphemes…:

— ex. 12 a language learner needs –> a language needer learns

And from my 8/12/11 posting “Reversal in the heat of the sexual moment”,

— You wanna shoot your fuckin’ load! –> You wanna fuck your shooting load!

This last example is formally parallel to the word reversal in #1

— To Kill a Mockingbird –> to mock a killingbird

but it’s incomprehensible, so it would make a very poor joke.

[Digression, on the title To Kill a Mockingbird. From Wikipedia:

To Kill a Mockingbirdis a novel by Harper Lee published in 1960. It was immediately successful, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and has become a classic of modern American literature.

The central characters are the lawyer Atticus Finch and his daughter Scout. At one point Atticus tells Scout and her brother Jem, “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (because the mockingbird is the (innocent) source of gorgeous song). The story involves a number of metaphorical mockingbirds, innocents who are injured or destroyed through contact with evil.

And then on the transposed version in #1: a fish mocks the raptor — the killing bird — that has seized the fish in its talons and is carrying it away to its death.

(Note: one commenter on the cartoon objected to it as factually inaccurate, because bald eagles always carry their fish prey with head facing front, not back as in the cartoon. Images of eagles with fish in their talons suggest this is generally so — probably because the birds usually approach fish from behind — but not always: some have the fish as in #1, some are holding the fish by its head, its body dangling vertically below.

In any case, cartoons exist in a special world of their own, full of cartoon-conventional locations, participants, and events, many only distantly related to their real-world counterparts; in drawing #1, Dan Piraro wasn’t aspiring to be John James Audubon. For crissake, #1 has a talking fish in it.)]

Wider senses of chiasmus. As a rhetorical figure, chiasmus covers word-order reversals as well as word transpositions:


Formal chiasmus and conceptual chiasmus. All the examples so far are about reversed linguistic expressions. But there’s also an extended sense of chiasmus that extends the term to reversals of figure and ground. These conceptual reversals will be described by linguistic expressions, of course, but it’s not actually words that are exchanged. From my 5/8/17 posting “What is figure, what is ground?”, with this Sipress cartoon as the centerpiece:

(#4) “I can’t remember—do I work at home or do I live at work?”

Which is the ground — home (living place) or workplace — and which is the figure — working or living?

A question framed in the caption as a chiasmus, abstractly of the form X … Y / Y … X?

It’s not really that the words V work … N home are transposed as V live … N work, but rather that the roles of the referents of these words are reversed:

‘be employed’ … ‘residence’ / ‘support oneself’ … ‘place of work’

Am I employed at my residence or do I support myself at my place of work?

It’s a lot jazzier in Sipress’s version, thanks to the homophony of the V work ‘be employed’ and the N work ‘place of work’.

(And of course it’s a takeoff on the conceptually chiastic The French work to live, but Americans live to work, which is only apparently formally chiastic, since it exploits the ambiguities of the V work (‘be employed, have a job’ OR ‘toil, labor’) and the verb live (‘enjoy oneself’ OR ‘spend one’s time, one’s life): The French have jobs in order to enjoy life (outside of those jobs), but Americans spend their time (indeed their lives) in order to toil at their jobs (for the satisfactions of a job well done).)

One Response to “A chiastic bird”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Years ago, I had a quote-a-day calendar, one of whose quotations was attributed to the eponymous Rev. Spooner himself: “Let us raise a glass to the queer old dean.” (You can undoubtedly guess why this one stuck in my mind.)

    Even more years ago, a friend of mine performed a nice act of inadvertent self-reference by referring to something he had just said as a “snooperism”.

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