Friday, January 21, 2011

Word of the Day: esprit de l'escalier

I quickened my step to slip onto the elevator before the doors closed. Inside, three bundled women waited impatiently.

"Everybody going down to one?" the woman nearest the buttons asked. We grunted our agreement and she pushed the button for the bottom floor. "We're all ready to get out of here and go home, I guess."

One of the women looks at me. I don't know her well, but I do know her, and being the youngest person on the elevator and the only man in the quartet makes me easy to single out. "You don't want to go home, do you, Andy?" It was simple small-talk, a simple bad joke.

"Nyah." I shrugged, unprepared for conversation.

The doors opened. One by one, we stepped out onto the first floor and headed for the snow-covered parking lot. Halfway down the hall, my mind clicked on and I realized what I should have said: "That depends. What are you making for dinner?"

This real-life example is brought to you by what the French call l'esprit de l'escalier, "the spirit of the staircase," that witty comeback, sexy melliloquence, or dextrous logodaedaly that would have been the perfect reply, but that didn't form in your mind until the moment had passed and it was too late to say.

In his book There's a Word for It, Charles Harrington Elster claims that Kirkpatrick Sale coined the English term stairwit and Bernard Cooper coined retrotort to mean approximately the same thing. It looks like CH Elster found both of these coined words in Jack Hitt's earlier In a Word: A Dictionary of Words that Don't Exist but Ought To, but I can find no evidence of either of these two men coining the word outside that book. That is, I can't find evidence (online) that either of these terms were used "in the wild" by either of these men.

I did, however, find stair-wit in an English translation of Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, which appears to have been translated by AA Brill, though Google Books cuts off much of the Translator's Notes section, so I'm not entirely confident. The evidence shows, though, that Brill is both a neurologist and a German-English translator.

At any rate, on page 210, we find this footnote:
A supplementary interpretation of this dream: To spit on the stairs, led me to "esprit d'escalier" by a free translation, owing to the fact that "Spucken" (English: spit, and also to act like a spook, to haunt) is an occupation of ghosts. "Stair-wit" is equivalent to lack of quickness at repartee (German: Schlagerfertigkeit—readiness to hit back, to strike), with which I must really reproach myself. Is it a question, however, whether the nurse was lacking in "readiness to hit"?

I'm pretty sure the footnote is from the translator and not from Freud himself. The book was published in 1913, which means, at any rate, that Kirkpatrick couldn't have been the first to use the term stairwit; he was born in 1937. Regardless, stairwit hasn't caught on.

Like déjà vu, esprit de l'escalier (or, sometimes, esprit d'escalier) is a French term that doesn't really have a suitable English equivalent. I don't understand why esprit de l'escalier isn't more commonly known and used than déjà vu. I, for one, encounter esprit de l'escalier much more than déjà vu.

Especially if I'm trying to talk to a beautiful woman.

Do have fun or embarrassing stories about what you should have said to someone that you'd like to share? Please do: Comments are open.