There's a Term for Thinking of a Comeback Too Late - OZY | A Modern Media Company

There's a Term for Thinking of a Comeback Too Late

There's a Term for Thinking of a Comeback Too Late

By Libby Coleman


Because the bottom of the stairs isn’t the spot to settle a score.

By Libby Coleman

Part of an occasional series on unusual words we wish we had in English. Read parts one, two and three.

You’re at a perfectly nice coworker’s party. Glass in hand, cheese in mouth, your strange conversation partner nails a racist remark. Or perhaps tries to hit on you. You’re a little baffled and a lot speechless.

So you leave — no snappy retort. You’re too busy beating an appalled path away from the social train wreck. At the door, though, the perfect reply finally blinks in. A little lightbulb of “Ah, that’s what I should have said.” But you’ve got one toe in the Uber; the moment for witty smackdown has passed. 

Little did you know there’s a term for this exact, awkward, awful realization. Many have shared the pain of this experience: 

L’esprit de l’escalier: the witty retort you should have made — but you didn’t come up with until it was too late.

Because who would climb back up those stairs to say a comeback? (Unless they’re wearing a Fitbit.) Literally, the phrase’s words mean “the wit of the staircase” or “the spirit of the staircase.”

French isn’t the only language with such a phrase. Props are deserved for the Yiddish word trepverter, which means “words that arrived too late.” Perhaps that explains why the phrase seems so positively Woody Allen–esque.

The French phrase finds its origins in a passage of a Denis Diderot book, according to professor of French studies Sean Hand. Diderot was an 18th-century philosopher — and though he didn’t use the exact phrase, he wrote of the phenomenon and someone unnamed wrote the catchier, snappier formulation. Someone berated him at a party and it wasn’t until he was leaving and making his way to the ground floor that he had his wits about him again with a reply. “It’s a very French sentiment,” Hand says. “An awful lot of French society was based on being clever, having an elegant rejoinder. There’s a lot of verbal jousting.”

Of course, the phrase might need a bit of retuning after a few hundred years. Because French apartments in the 18th century were often on a high floor, with a long staircase to get out, the visual was more accurate than in today’s world of private homes and elevators, according to professor of French Barbara Klaw. Now a more apt phrase might be “the spirit of the Uber” — l’esprit d’uber.

Luckily, technology helps. There’s always text and email and messenger to get that final word in right away.

Share your favorite untranslatable words in the comments. (Hey, we said untranslatable, not unrepeatable!)

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