Avoir l’esprit de l’escalier

Avoir l'esprit de l'escalier
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French Expression

Meaning to be unable to think of a witty comeback in time
Literally to have the wit of the staircase
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Pronunciation French sound files [ah vwar leh spree deu leh scah lyay]
IPA   [a vwaʁ lɛ spʁi də lɛ ska lje]

Usage notes:  The French expression avoir l’esprit de l’escalier refers to an inability to think of a witty comeback (or any sort of intelligent response) until it’s too late to be of any use.

Esprit means wit, and escalier, or staircase, symbolizes your departure from the gathering where the response was needed. But you can also use this expression while still at a party; for example, if you come up with a response only after the topic has changed and it’s too late for you to make your oh-so-brilliant comment without looking foolish.

Par exemple…

Matthieu m’a reprochĂ© d’ĂȘtre trop timide. J’aurais dĂ» lui dire qu’il Ă©tait exactement comme moi quand il Ă©tait plus jeune, mais j’ai l’esprit de l’escalier et, comme d’habitude, je n’y ai pensĂ© que le lendemain.

Matthieu criticized me for being too shy. I should have told him that he was just like me when he was younger, but I have staircase wit and, as usual, didn’t think of it until the next day.

 Note that when used in the present tense, as above, the expression avoir l’esprit de l’escalier refers to an ongoing affliction, indicating that the person regularly suffers from “staircase wit.” To talk about a specific instance, use it in the passĂ© composĂ©.

Par exemple…

Lors de la rĂ©union, CĂ©leste m’a fait remarquer qu’il y avait plusieurs fautes d’orthographe dans mon dernier article. C’Ă©tait de la pure mĂ©chancetĂ© et j’ai eu l’esprit de l’escalier ; je n’ai mĂȘme pas pensĂ© Ă  rĂ©pliquer que tous ses articles Ă  elle Ă©taient relus par sa secrĂ©taire.

During the meeting, CĂ©leste told me that there were several typos in my last article. It was out of sheer spite and I was speechless; it didn’t even occur to me to respond that all of her articles were proofread by her secretary.

Variation: avoir l’esprit d’escalier

Somewhat synonymous

  • ĂȘtre bouche bĂ©e – to be stunned
  • manquer de rĂ©partie – to not have a retort
  • ne pas savoir rĂ©partir – to not know how/what to retort
  • ne pas savoir rĂ©pliquer / rĂ©pondre – to not know how/what to respond

Somewhat antonymous

  • avoir de la rĂ©partie – to be good at repartee
  • avoir la rĂ©partie facile – to be good at repartee
  • avoir l’esprit de rĂ©partie – to have a gift for repartee
  • rĂ©partir – to retort
  • rĂ©pliquer – to reply, respond

 En anglais

The French term is used more often than the various English translations:

  • afterwit
  • escalator wit
  • staircase wit

 Related lessons

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J'ai l'esprit de l'escalier

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