I have in mind a particular kind of expression which employs a repeated sentence structure, but with key words reversed for dramatic or emphatic effect. Here are two examples:

  • "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog"
  • JFK's famous "ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country"

In both cases, the words in bold have been reversed to reveal a deeper or more profound truth. Does this particular kind of idiom or expression have a formal name?

  • Your examples are not idioms. (look it up)
    – GEdgar
    Nov 4, 2019 at 22:21

1 Answer 1


I think the term you are looking for is antimetabole.

"In rhetoric, antimetabole (/æntɪməˈtæbəliː/ AN-ti-mə-TAB-ə-lee) is the repetition of words in successive clauses, but in transposed order; for example, "I know what I like, and I like what I know"." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antimetabole

Honestly I always thought it was chiasmus - but apparently it is not.

"In rhetoric, chiasmus or, less commonly, chiasm (Latin term from Greek χίασμα, "crossing", from the Greek χιάζω, chiázō, "to shape like the letter Χ") is a "reversal of grammatical structures in successive phrases or clauses – but no repetition of words"...."


I'm pretty sure the JFK line is used as a standard example of chiasmus, but the correct term is antimetabole.

  • Yes, I think the specific term is antimetabole. Thanks,
    – jrdevdba
    Nov 4, 2019 at 21:59
  • 1
    There are so many of them that it can get confusing. Well done, though.
    – Lambie
    Nov 4, 2019 at 22:10
  • 2
    "It's not who answers the question, it's who questions the answer."
    – John Canon
    Nov 5, 2019 at 2:44
  • Yes, John, and I am grateful that my answer was questioned. I not only learned something myself, I was able to correct the wrong information I had originally posted.
    – jrdevdba
    Nov 6, 2019 at 17:18

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