l'esprit de l'escalier



Borrowed from French esprit de l’escalier (literally mind of the staircase), with the definite article le (the) at the beginning of the term elided to l’. It refers to a description of the phenomenon in the essay Paradoxe sur le comédien (Paradox of the Actor, completed 1778 and published 1830)[1] by the French encyclopedist and philosopher Denis Diderot (1713–1784). During a dinner at the home of the statesman Jacques Necker (1732–1804), Diderot was left speechless by a remark made to him. He wrote: « l’homme sensible, comme moi, tout entier à ce qu’on lui objecte, perd la tête et ne se retrouve qu’au bas de l’escalier » (“a sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again at the bottom of the stairs”), that is, when one is already on the way out of the house.



l'esprit de l'escalier (uncountable)

  1. The phenomenon when a conversational rejoinder or remark only occurs to someone after the opportunity to make it has passed.
    Synonyms: afterwit, staircase wit
    • 1911 October 26, Max Beerbohm, chapter XVII, in Zuleika Dobson, or, An Oxford Love Story, 1st American edition, New York, N.Y.: John Lane Company, published 1912, OCLC 925129, page 256:
      Yet, she had outflanked him, taken him unawares, and he had fired not one shot. Esprit de l'escalier—it was as he went upstairs that he saw how he might yet have snatched from her, if not the victory, the palm.
    • 1971, Keith Thomas, “Astrology: Its Social and Intellectual Role”, in Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, →ISBN; republished London: Folio Society, 2012, OCLC 805007047, page 317:
      ‘I knew not then,’ he confessed, ‘but now I think…’ It is not necessary to follow Goad along the path taken by his esprit d'escalier to see how sheer intellectual pleasure was the driving-force behind such efforts.
    • 2011, Richard Kearney, “Epilogue”, in Anatheism: Returning to God after God (Insurrections), New York, N.Y.; Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press, →ISBN, part 3 (Postlude), page 182:
      Some last thoughts in l'esprit de l'escalier—afterthoughts descending the stairwell as one remembers things unsaid.
    • 2013, Simmone Howell, Girl Defective, Sydney, N.S.W.: Pan Macmillan, →ISBN; paperback edition, New York, N.Y.: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, September 2015, →ISBN, pages 100–101:
      I flashed on Nancy again. The French had a word for everything: even for that thing you wished you'd said. L'esprit de l'escalier. The wit of the staircase. What I wished I'd said was this: []
    • 2014, Christopher Fowler, Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart (A Peculiar Crimes Unit Mystery), New York, N.Y.: Bantam Books, →ISBN, page 173:
      'That's understandable,' said May, 'we get it all the time. L'esprit d'escalier—remembering what you should have said too late.'
    • 2014, Zoë Wicomb, October: A Novel, New York, N.Y.: The New Press, →ISBN, page 112:
      Later, l'esprit de l'escalier provided Mercia with: Glad you're in agreement/I haven't yet spoken/Is that a greeting/Yes indeed—but at the time, affronted, she grabbed at a couple of garments and announced, I'll try these.

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  1. ^ Denis Diderot (1830) Paradoxe sur le comédien: Ouvrage posthume de Diderot [Paradox of the Actor: Posthumous Work of Diderot], Paris: A. Sautelet, OCLC 457830034.

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