l’esprit de l’escalier / staircase wit

L’esprit de l’escalier, or staircase wit, is that frightfully witty, worthy of Oscar Wilde comeback that occurs to you hours after the opportunity to make it is lost.

The phrase was coined by Denis Diderot (1713-84) in Paradoxe sur le Com├ędien, written 1773-78. In 18th century French l’esprit meant wit, not the current sense of mind or spirit. So a modern translation might be spirit of the staircase, indicating that there was some sort of staircase dryad that whispers the comeback to you as you ascend to your bedroom after the party is over. But this would not be an accurate interpretation of Diderot’s original thought.

The earliest English language citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Fowler’s 1906 The King’s English:

The French have had the wit to pack into the words esprit d’escalier the common experience that one’s happiest retorts occur to one only when the chance of uttering them is gone, the door is closed, and one’s feet are on the staircase. That is well worth introducing to an English audience; the only question is whether it is of any use to translate it without explanation. No one will know what spirit of the staircase is who is not already familiar with esprit d’escalier; and even he who is may not recognize it in disguise, seeing that esprit does not mean spirit (which suggests a goblin lurking in the hall clock), but wit.

(Sources: Yale Book of Quotations; Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; The King’s English at www.bartleby.com)

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