The conversation turned to the figure of speech known as chiasmus among me and my colleagues yesterday. Chiasmus is one of those words whose dictionary definition isn't very helpful, as it makes the phenomenon sound more complicated than it actually is. This is how the New Oxford Dictionary of English defines it: 'A rhetorical or literary figure in which words, grammatical constructions, or comments are repeated in reverse order, in the same or a modified form'.
It's easier to understand when faced with examples. Here are some:
'Never let a fool kiss you - or a kiss fool you' (anon)
'It's not the men in my life, it's the life in my men' (Mae West)
'Fair is foul, and foul is fair' (Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act I, Scene 1)
'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country' (John F Kennedy)
The reason the topic came up in conversation yesterday was because one of my colleagues was talking about his holiday to North America. He had been in a fairly remote town on the Alaskan/Canadian border and had got talking to a couple of women, who told him that there were five men for every woman in that part of the world. 'The odds are good, but the goods are odd', said one woman - a perfect example of chiasmus.