I am the master of the witty comeback.
The problem is that the witty comeback always seems to come to me five minutes too late. And by then the only person who gets to enjoy such clever repartee is me.
Little did I know, there is a word, or more accurately a phrase, for such a realization – L’esprit de l’escalier, which is a French phrase meaning “thinking of the perfect reply too late”.
The origin of the word comes from the story of someone who was verbally accosted at a party, and was so taken aback that he was not able to offer a rebuke. It wasn’t until he was leaving and making his way to the ground floor that he had his wits about him again and thought of the perfect reply. By then, he had no desire in climbing back up the staircase.
But French isn’t the only language with such a phrase. The Yiddish word Trepverter means “words that arrived too late.” And the Germans have a word, Treppenwitz, that seems to borrow directly from the French, since it also translates as staircase wit. There does not seem to be any English counterpart for such an expression.
So I think the next time I am at a loss for words, I’ll just keep this phrase in my backpocket and throw it out as my reply. Since the odds are high that no one will know what it means, perhaps it will give me a few extra moments to actually think of something clever to say.
And if I can’t think of anything at that moment, I’ll just say L’esprit de l’escalier once more in a way that makes it sound as if it is the perfect reply.
*image is an album cover from Best Case Scenario
thank you to Libby Coleman of Ozy for inspiring this post