L'esprit de l'escalier

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L'esprit de l'escalier or l'esprit d'escalier (UK: /lɛˌspr d(ə l)ɛˈskælj/, US: /lɛˌspr d(ə ˌl)ɛskəˈlj/,[1] French: [lɛspʁi d(ə l)ɛskalje]; lit. 'the staircase mind') is a French term used in English for the predicament of thinking of the perfect reply too late.


This name for the phenomenon comes from French encyclopedist and philosopher Denis Diderot's description of such a situation in his Paradoxe sur le comédien ("Paradox on the Comedian").[2] During a dinner at the home of statesman Jacques Necker, a remark was made to Diderot which left him speechless at the time, because, he explains, "a sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and [can only think clearly again when he] finds himself at the bottom of the stairs" ("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").

In this case, "the bottom of the stairs" refers to the architecture of the kind of hôtel particulier or mansion to which Diderot had been invited. In such houses, the reception rooms were on the étage noble, one floor above the ground floor.[3] To have reached the bottom of the stairs means to have definitively left the gathering.

Similar English terms[edit]

English speakers sometimes call this "escalator wit", or "staircase wit".[4] Afterwit is a synonym, with forewit as its antonym.[citation needed]

In other languages[edit]

The Yiddish trepverter ("staircase words")[5] and the German loan translation Treppenwitz (when used in an English language context)[citation needed] express the same idea as l'esprit de l'escalier. However, in contemporary German Treppenwitz has an additional meaning: It refers to events or facts that seem to contradict their own background or context.[6] The frequently used phrase Treppenwitz der Weltgeschichte ("staircase joke of world history") derives from the title of a book by that name by William Lewis Hertslet [de][7] (1882; much expanded 1895) and means "irony of history" or "paradox of history".[8][9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "esprit de l'escalier" (US) and "esprit de l'escalier". Oxford Dictionaries UK Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 20 May 2019.
  2. ^ Paradoxe sur le comédien, 1773, remanié en 1778; Diderot II, Classiques Larousse 1934, p. 56
  3. ^ "Piano nobile - (Architecture): Definition". En.mimi.hu. Retrieved 2011-10-27.
  4. ^ "Merriam-Webster Online". Merriam-webster.com. Retrieved 2011-10-27.
  5. ^ Mark Cohen (2010-03-22). "Chabon and Alter: Is it Esprit d'escalier or Trepverter?". The Forward. Retrieved 2013-01-18.
  6. ^ Treppenwitz, DUDEN – Das große Wörterbuch der Deutschen Sprache in zehn Bänden, Mannheim 2000. "Bedeutung: Vorfall, der wie ein schlechter Scherz wirkt." [Meaning: event which looks like a bad joke]
  7. ^ Hertslet, William Lewis; Helmolt, Hans Ferdinand (2006-06-23). Der Treppenwitz der Weltgeschichte. Geschichtliche Irrtümer, Entstellungen und Erfindungen, William Lewis Hertslet, Winfried Hoffman. Retrieved 2011-10-27.
  8. ^ [1]
  9. ^ Langenscheidts Großes Schulwörterbuch Deutsch-Englisch, Berlin, München 1977

External links[edit]