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Esprit de l’escalier

Q From Pierre Garon, Canada: On reading your piece on blurb, I noticed that you wrote about esprit de l’escalier (a French expression, no doubt), for a witty remark made a posteriori. This expression is fascinating. Can you give us a bit more about it?

A I throw these nuggets of foreign culture in from time to time to unsettle the complacent and generally keep readers on their toes. Esprit de l’escalier means “staircase wit”. It is credited to the French author and encyclopaedist Denis Diderot, in his Paradoxe sur le Comédien, written between 1773 and 1778 but not published until 1830.

In the original it refers to that infuriating situation in which you leave a drawing room and are halfway down the stairs before you suddenly think of that devastatingly witty comment you could have made. (Architectural note: eighteenth-century grand houses had their principal public rooms on an upper floor.) More generally, it’s any sparkling remark you wish you had thought of at the time but were too slow-witted to produce.

Though well known in French, it seems to have begun to appear in English writing only at the beginning of the twentieth century. Apart from a reference to it by the brothers Fowler in 1906, the first recorded use in English is in Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (1911), but in a wittily inverted sense that shows the author expected his readers to understand and appreciate the reference: “What ought he to have said? He prayed, as he followed the victorious young woman downstairs, that l’esprit de l’escalier might befall him. Alas, it did not.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 4 April 2004.