L’esprit de l’escalier
Stairway, the Louvre, Paris, 2007
L’esprit de l’escalier or esprit d’escalier (stairway wit) is the sense of thinking of a clever comeback in an encounter when it is too late. I have spent many a tortured night tossing and turning over this maddening dilemma.
The phrase can be used to describe a riposte to an insult, or any witty, clever remark that comes to mind too late to be useful—when one is on the “staircase” leaving the scene of the encounter. The phenomenon is usually accompanied by a feeling of regret at having not thought of the riposte when it was most needed or suitable. The French encyclopedist Denis Diderot originally described this situation in his Paradoxe sur le Comédien.
The German word Treppenwitz or the Yiddish word Trepverter are used to express the same idea. The German term is old, but it was made popular by W. Lewis Hertslet in a 1882 book entitled Treppenwitz der Weltgeschichte (“Stair-joke of world history”).
UPDATE: My fellow blogger Jane over at Blue Lantern so beautifully enriched this concept with visuals and research (Aristotle, for example, thought the stairway symbolized the divine order of the universe). For a fascinating backstory on stairways and their influence on life and art, see Blue Lantern.