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L'esprit de l'escalier - vocabulary

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  Ed Good  —  Grammar Tips
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This French term describes the predicament everyone has experienced: thinking of the ideal comeback after the moment has passed, indeed, after it’s too late. The term literally translates to “stairway wit,” that is, thinking of the perfect retort while descending the stairway after leaving the dinner.

My husband was reading a commentary written by Charles Krauthammer in which he used the French phrase, L’esprit de l’escalier. Evidently it means “staircase wit” that refers to the universal situation in which we’re left speechless by some sort of rudeness or verbal attack, and only later can we imagine all kinds of appropriate retaliations.

In its original French usage, the author first explained that if a sensitive man is (understandably) overwhelmed by an argument against him, he becomes confused and can only think clearly again when he reaches the bottom of the stairs – in this case, referring to the architecture of the classic European hotel or mansion where the reception room is located one floor above, so for this author to reach the bottom of the stairs it means once he’s left the party.

In real life this happens to all of us at one time or another. But as an author giving voice to my characters, I can honestly proclaim this never happens unless I want it to. That is, of course, because I’m a better re-writer than writer. I have all the time in the world to get to the bottom of the staircase and calmly search for appropriate reaction to every surprise situation in which my characters might find themselves.

I’ve often wished life would imitate art a bit more often . . . at least the good parts.

Here’s to a week ahead in which the right words come at the right time, especially if they’re uplifting.

Authors Never Suffer From L’esprit de l’escalier October 22, 2012 Maureen Lang

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