L’esprit de l’escalier (the spirit of the staircase) is a French phrase which roughly translates to staircase wisdom or staircase wit. It is the epiphany a person has after they’ve left a social situation, where they think of the ideal response (usually to an insult) they never said.
The term was coined by the enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot:
While Denis was getting sloshed at the mansion of his buddy, Jaques Necker, he was hit with a remark which left him speechless. Later on, Denis sat at his desk, fuming in his undergarments, and agitatedly wrote: “A sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument leveled against him becomes confused and can only think clearly again when he reaches the bottom of the stairs.”
“The bottom of the stairs” refers to the architecture of Jacques Necker’s mansion. In such a home the reception room, where people engaged in witty banter and busted balls, was on the second floor. To have reached the bottom of the stairs meant that you had left the party and were drunkenly stumbling out to your horse and carriage, pissed off at your social ineptitude.
After reading dusty biographies from Paris archives and scouring historical texts, I’ve been able to reconstruct the conversation between Jacques and Denis which led to the birth of this French phrase. Here is what Jaques said:
“So, hmph, ahem, Denis, you’re a freethinking atheist who is also a maniacal materialist. Well, answer me this. Last night the spirit of Jesus Christ visited me in bed and told me you’re an imbecile. (Crowd laughter.) He said you should have listened to your father and stayed in law, instead of living a bohemian existence for ten years and being disowned by your family. (More laughter.) Oh,
and you’re a penniless skeptic, who couldn’t even afford your daughter’s dowry so you had to sell your precious library, always questioning life and thinking about this blasphemous evolution. Well, let me give you some definite answers: I’m richer than you! I’m not a monkey! And I’m right and you’re wrong! (Room erupts with peals of uncontrollable laughter.)
Diderot sits there in silence. After he leaves the party, he finally thinks of the perfect reply:
“Your mother’s a dirty whore.”
I’ve always been interested in semantic discrepancies between languages concerning particular phrases and ideas. In some Kenyan tribes they don’t have a phrase for “being late.” In the Russian language there are 9 different ways to say “bastard.” In Spanish there are numerous ways to say “I miss you,” one of them being “Me haces falta,” which means “you cause my want,” or “you make my lack.” These discrepancies reveal the culture behind the language, where desires, beliefs, and idiosyncrasies dictate which expressions become more varied, powerful, frequently used, or specific.
The fact that the French have a well-worn phrase for “staircase wisdom,” reveals their culture’s emphasis on witty, biting, and sparing banter. I’ve read many French novels, and in almost all of them there’s at least one scene where people are sitting at dinner table ruthlessly making fun of one another. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that they have a phrase which describes the “spirit” of getting back at someone in a social scenario.
Anyway…to leave on a good note…here’s a picture of moldy, delicious cheese: