French expression of the day: Esprit de l’escalier

French expression of the day: Esprit de l'escalier
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
We can't all be comeback kings and if your wit is sometimes less than rapier-like you might need this.

Why do I need to know esprit de l'escalier?

Because this has definitely happened to you.

What does it mean?

L'esprit de l'escalier, literally 'the spirit of the staircase' is that infuriating moment when you think of the perfect comeback ten minutes after an argument has finished. 

By then it's obviously too late to deploy your zinger, and all you can do is replay the conversation in your head and slot it in retroactively.

The phrase is said to have been coined by the 18th Century French philosopher Denis Diderot, who obviously wasn't as quick-witted as he would have liked, because he realised he was coming up with his best lines on the staircase having just left the apartment or salon where he'd been chewing the fat with with his (no doubt ultra-philosophical) mates.  

Although the Germans have adopted the phrase directly (Treppenwitz in German), it has no real equivalent in English. Perhaps it's time there was one?

Use it like this

J'aurais dû lui répondre sur-le-champ mais j'ai eu l'esprit de l'escalier – I should have answered him there and then, but I only thought of the perfect comeback much later

L'esprit de l'escalier can happen to the best of us. Photo: AFP

READ ALSO Nine French phrases that English really should have too


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