meaning and origin of the phrase ‘esprit d’escalier’

A borrowing from French, the expression esprit de l’escalier, or esprit d’escalier, literally wit of (the) staircase, denotes a retort or remark that occurs to a person after the opportunity to make it has passed.

It originally referred to a witty remark coming to mind on the stairs leading away from a social gathering. The image seems to have originated in Paradoxe sur le Comédien (Paradox of the Actor), an essay on theatre by the French philosopher, writer and critic Denis Diderot (1713-84):

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.
The man of sensitivity, like me, wrapped up in what is objected to him, loses his head, and only pulls himself together at the bottom of the staircase.

In Etiquette: the American code of manners: a study of the usages, laws, and observances which govern intercourse in the best circles of American society (New York, 1884), the American author Mary Elizabeth Wilson Sherwood (1826-1903) had in mind a different staircase; she wrote of

that belated wit which the French call “l’esprit de l’escalier”—the wit of the stair-case—the good things which we remember that we might have said as we go upstairs to bed after the party is over.

The earliest use of the phrase in English that I have found is from The Era (London) of 26th June 1842:

The Globe newspaper, which, amid its generally trifling manner, sometimes says a smart thing, has declared Sir Richard Vyvyan to possess in a remarkable degree l’esprit de l’escalier, which means the faculty of recollecting when one is going down stairs all the sensible and witty things that one might have said before leaving the room.

The American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) used the expression in English Traits (Boston, 1856):

A slow temperament makes them less rapid and ready than other countrymen, and has given occasion to the observation, that English wit comes afterwards,—which the French denote as esprit d’escalier. This dulness makes their attachment to home, and their adherence in all foreign countries to home habits. The Englishman who visits Mount Etna, will carry his teakettle to the top.

In The King’s English (2nd edition – Oxford, 1906), a book on English usage and grammar, the English authors Henry Watson Fowler (1858-1933) and Francis George Fowler (1871-1918) criticised the translation spirit of the staircase. They first gave the following quotation:

I thought afterwards, but it was the spirit of the staircase, what a pity it was that I did not stand at the door with a hat, saying, ‘Give an obol to Belisarius’.—Morley.

And they remarked:

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.

(French esprit primarily means spirit, mind, hence intelligence, wit.)

Better English renderings have been used: staircase thought, staircase afterthought and staircase wit.

In the third volume of her memoirs, Scoundrel Time (1976), the American dramatist and screenwriter Lillian Florence Hellman (1905-84) gave a variation on the phrase. Recollecting her experience with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, she wishes she had told the chairman, John Stephens Wood:

“There is no Communist menace in this country and you know it. You have made cowards into liars, an ugly business, and you made me write a letter in which I acknowledged your power. I should have gone into your Committee room, given my name and address, and walked out.” Many people have said they liked what I did, but I don’t much, and if I hadn’t worried about rats in jail, and such. . . . Ah, the bravery you tell yourself was possible when it’s all over, the bravery of the staircase.

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