L'esprit de l'escalier
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. 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, "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" ("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").
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. To have reached the bottom of the stairs means to have definitively left the gathering.
Similar English terms
English speakers sometimes call this "escalator wit", or "staircase wit". Afterwit is a synonym, with forewit as its antonym. Sometimes also referred to as "jerk-storing" after a famous Seinfeld episode.
In other languages
The Yiddish trepverter ("staircase words") and the German loan translation Treppenwitz (when used in an English language context) express the same idea as l'esprit de l'escalier. However, in contemporary German Treppenwitz has a different meaning: It refers to events or facts that seem to contradict their own background or context. The frequently used phrase "Treppenwitz der Weltgeschichte" ("staircase joke of world history") derives from the title of a book by that name by W. Lewis Hertslet and means "a paradox of history".
- Paradoxe sur le comédien, 1773, remanié en 1778; Diderot II, Classiques Larousse 1934, p. 56
- "Piano nobile - (Architecture): Definition". En.mimi.hu. Retrieved 2011-10-27.
- "Merriam-Webster Online". Merriam-webster.com. Retrieved 2011-10-27.
- Mark Cohen (2010-03-22). "Chabon and Alter: Is it Esprit d'escalier or Trepverter?". The Forward. Retrieved 2013-01-18.
- Der Treppenwitz der Weltgeschichte. Geschichtliche Irrtümer, Entstellungen und Erfindungen, William Lewis Hertslet, Winfried Hoffman. Books.google.com. 2006-06-23. Retrieved 2011-10-27.
- Langenscheidts Großes Schulwörterbuch Deutsch-Englisch, Berlin, München 1977
- DUDEN – Das große Wörterbuch der Deutschen Sprache in zehn Bänden, Mannheim 2000
- The dictionary definition of l'esprit de l'escalier at Wiktionary