Have you ever found yourself thinking of the perfect thing to say just a moment too late? For me, it happens all the time. In fact, I may remember the perfect anecdote to add to this post after I publish this article. The French have a phrase to describe that feeling, it’s called l’espirit de l’escalier, which translates to “escalator wit” or “staircase wit” in English.
I came across this term during a random Google search for words. L’espirit de l’escalier interested me because I often find myself thinking of the perfect response to someone’s question when it’s too late. Sometimes too much time passes, and you can’t make a comment because the discussion has moved in a completely different direction. This is what happened in the Seinfeld episode where George goes out of his way to tell his coworker a witty comment he thought of too late. To get the chance to make his comeback, he takes a bucket full of shrimp to his next meeting in hopes of eliciting the same response from his coworker, so he could deliver the line he thought of retroactively.
The term L’espirit de l’escalier was coined by French philosopher Denis Diderot during the 1700’s. When he became a writer in 1734, his father disowned him. He wrote many pieces, faced financial troubles, and was briefly placed in solitary confinement in Vincennes. That was, of course, until his influential connections made his stay more comfortable by granting him access to the Vincennes castle, books, and visitors. Essentially, he got to live in a posh jail. Talk about having friends in high places! Unfortunately, he didn’t receive much recognition for his intellectual contributions during his lifetime. His famous works were only published and praised after his death. The curse of unrecognized geniuses, kind of like Van Gogh, except for the shooting himself and cutting off his ear part. Diderot died of a pulmonary embolism at 70, which is a pretty long time, especially during the 1700s.
If this post seems episodic, it’s because it is. I got sucked into the internet vortex while trying to learn more about where the phrase l’espirit de l’escalier came from on Wikipedia. An article lead me to another one, and so on. Soon, I found myself reading about Diderot’s life, which is interesting enough to be the plot for a novel. Rich son gets disowned by disapproving father, adopts a bohemian lifestyle, and meets some important people, has kids, becomes notable after his death. I’d read that!
Here’s the article that started my journey: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%27esprit_de_l%27escalier. Read it, you may get sucked into a different vortex.
And, remember, that next time you think of the perfect response too late, there’s a phrase for that, l’espirit de l’escalier or stairwell wit or escalator wit.
*Photo Credit: WikiSein
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