L’esprit de l’escalier is an exception to my usual preference for English words over foreign ones. Too often, the foreign expression is chosen only to impress. However, I make an exception for “l’esprit de l’escalier.” Not only does it lack an exact English equivalent, but the metaphor is too evocative for me to resist. (I understand that it is no exact French equivalent today either, being 18th Century French, but I digress. Update — apparently, I was wrong here, according to the comment below).
Translated, the phrase means “stairway wit.” It refers to the retorts and comebacks that come to you later – when, in fact, you are descending the stairs from someone’s front door or apartment to go home.
There’s a literal illustration of the phrase early in Neil Gaiman’s Death: The High Cost of Living when a teenage boy descending a stair well thinks of all the ways he should have responded to a Goth girl’s declaration that she is the incarnation of Death.
Most people can respond to the phrase, because they’ve experienced stairway wit themselves. As Leslie P. Polzer, a reader of this blog and sometime journalistic colleague, points out, delivering comebacks when they’re needed is a skill that requires practice. I would add it also requires a will to be perceived as witty or comical that most of us simply don’t have – or want, really.
Oscar Wilde or Beau Brummell’s remarks might be enjoyable to read, but I strongly suspect that both Oscar and Beau would have been annoying to endure for more than a moment at a party, especially if you were hoping for a serious conversation. Just as a discussion was becoming promising, they’d interject with an aside whose main point was to call attention to themselves rather than advance the discussion. I suppose, though, that their wit might be useful in interrupting a bore, or breaking up an argument with laughter, but it takes an egotism that most of us don’t have to be constantly calling attention to ourselves with a well-turned phrase or piece of humor.
Instead, most of the time, the rest of us go away stewing or still thinking, and only come up with what we should have said hours later, or the next morning as we wake up. As a result, we rarely get to deliver our stairway wit – finding the audience and insisting on offering it would usually be boorish or impractical for any number of reasons. And so our stairway wit is wasted, a waste that most of us find frustrating. So, it’s good to have a label to put to the experience.
Conversely, the odd time that we do manage to play Oscar Wilde or Beau Brummell, we treasure the experience precisely because it is rare.
In my case, I have an extra reason for appreciating the phrase. As a writer, revision is an important to me, and l’esprit de l’escalier is a form of revision. It’s a recasting of a conversation as you would have liked it to have gone. Life itself not being subject to revision, stairway wit is necessarily an entirely mental process, but it’s a form of editing all the same.
Not only do I appreciate being able to distinguish this form of editing from, say, proofreading or copy editing, but I probably spend more of my time on stairway wit than most people, thinking of what I might have said to gain a laugh or here, or to keep a friendship there or win an argument somewhere else.
That’s one of the minor vices of being a writer: After a while, you want to revise everything, no matter how impractical doing so may actually be. I spend a lot of time on that staircase, muttering internally, so I appreciate a convenient phrase that describes where I am.