Monday, July 26, 2010

Words Unsaid

A few years ago, my father-in-law, who is quite erudite, introduced me to a phrase that the French have: L’esprit de l’escalier, which is often translated as “staircase wit.”

The phrase refers to the clever comeback that occurs to us only after the best moment for delivery has passed — after our opponent has walked away or left the room, say, or we have. There’s also a German equivalent, treppenwitz.

We’ve all had this experience: a situation flusters us, takes us out of our game. The moment passes and when it’s too late that great comeback line hits us and we wish we could re-live the opportunity.

The phrase L’esprit de l’escalier originates, apparently, from Diderot’s Paradoxe sur le comedien, where he tells the story of just such an occurrence, an argument upstairs in a mansion where he didn’t regain his wits until he was down at the bottom of the staircase alone.