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Sunday, 23 April 2017

Esprit de l'escalier

Esprit de l'escalier, from the French literally meaning 'staircase wit' is a beautiful phrase which is used in English because staircase or escalator wit sounds clumsy and inadequate. The pronunciation is 'espree de lescaliay' (click the words to hear it on You Tube).
It is defined as "A witty remark thought of too late, on the way home [or as you go upstairs]; the clever comment you wish you had delivered". We've all been there!
A good example is from Seinfeld (which is packed with examples):
George has a conflict with one of his co-workers named Reilly, who notices George stuffing himself with shrimp cocktail at a meeting. He remarks: "Hey George, the ocean called; they're running out of shrimp." Slow-witted George cannot think of a comeback until later, while driving to the tennis club to meet Jerry. His comeback is: "Well, the Jerk Store called, and they're running out of you." George becomes obsessed with recreating the encounter so that he can make use of his comeback.    Jerry, Elaine and Kramer disapprove of "jerk store" as a comeback mainly because "there are no jerk stores." Elaine suggests, "Your cranium called. It's got some space to rent." Jerry offers, "The zoo called. You're due back by six." Kramer finally suggests that George simply tell Reilly that he had sex with his wife.
This figure of speech should not be confused with a regular witty response. For example:
John Montagu: "Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox."
John Wilkes:"That will depend, my lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress."
It wouldn't have been the same if Wilkes had written him a letter the next day with his riposte, would it?
I'm listening to Neil Young's Harvest Moon. After all these years I still enjoy hearing it.Click the title to listen.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hot from the desk of the appalling, yet fabulous, Sir Tom Eagerly:
Bazza old chap, although I can't remember much after 1959, (it's the drink you know) I think I recall this ditty. It's not my kind thing though. Whatever happened to that nice Rolf Harris - there was a singer for you! Cheers!

bazza said...

Sir Tom! You're still alive. That's a real shock. Did you just regain consciousness?

Botanist said...

That's a useful phrase. You know, there's lots of everyday concepts like that that the English language doesn't have words for. Did you ever hear of "The Meaning of Liff"? It's a booklet by Douglas Adams (of Hitchhikers Guide fame) written as a dictionary. He used place names from around the world and assigned them "useful" meanings. The brilliance of it is that it's easy to relate to most of the definitions in there.

Hels said...

When Sean Spicer claimed that even Adolf Hitler did not sink to using chemical weapons during WW2, I wasn't feeling witty.. just angry. At 3 am I woke my husband up and said "and thank goodness the Americans did not drop nuclear bombs on two Japanese cities filled with civilians".

Joe had no idea what I had been responding to, 9 hours after Spicer spoke.

Parnassus said...

Hello Bazza, That prime humorist, Robert Benchley, occasionally wrote about not being ready with a sally. Esprit de l'escalier happens even to the best of them. Of course, his remarks to cover the lapse were usually funnier than the mot itself.
--Jim

bazza said...

Botanist: It's certainly a useful and humorous concept. As a phrase - well, the other party would have to know what you meant by it! I do remember The Meaning of Liff but I had forgotten that it was by one of my heroes - Douglas Adams. He was a genius.

bazza said...

Hels: I am sure Joe was delighted with.....esprit de la chambre(?)

bazza said...

Jim: Yes I agree. It took me some years (to my shame) to untangle the name of Robert Benchley from that chap who wrote Jaws!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Bazza - I'd never heard of the term .. but I certainly use the concept. Fascinating and thanks for enlightening me ... cheers Hilary

http://positiveletters.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/t-is-for-turkey.html
I've corrected your guineafowlv turkey note ... and now I've tarred feet problem!

bazza said...

Hi Hilary. I feel mean now! I wasn't trying to correct your post - just thinking out loud really!
I first came across the term esprit de l'escalier when I stated Blogging eleven years ago because is was name of the Blog of one of the first people to comment on mine (Her name was Gail Martin and she is now a published author in the USA).

All Consuming said...

Hahahahaha fantastic! I'd never heard of it either. Thank you for the info bazza, and the sketch tickled me highly too.

The Unknown Journey Ahead said...

I have never heard of this French expression. It's wonderful. I've had several experiences of "if only I had come back with something witty...". Perhaps we all have had these.

David said...

Hi bazza,
I remember when I was working voluntarily for a local mental health charity and we were visited by a journalist from our local paper in Stoke, "The Sentinel". He'd written a story on the opening of a new psychiatric hospital which contained some pretty prejudiced views on mental ill health, so I quizzed him about this, only for him to say, "well, your average man in the street couldn't care less about mental health anyway." I was so exasperated at the time that I didn't know what to say, but sure enough the following day the angry, barbed responses came thick and fast, if only inside my own head!
Anyway, another informative post, bazza, as I hadn't heard of the phrase before. It's good to be able to give a name to an occurrence which seems to happen to me all too often!
All the best,
David

bazza said...

Hello David. That's a perfect example of this topic! I find it interesting that every language has gaps where there are no words available. In English we are not ashamed to borrow from other languages (I feel a new post being generated on that subject). Thanks for visiting.

bazza said...

All Consuming: Yes, I thought it would be right up your alley (so to speak).

bazza said...

Unknown Journey. It's very useful isn't it? I think most of us have thought of a brilliant riposte too late. Maybe not Oscar Wilde!

Bob Scotney said...

I usually could make the most of this saying, the moment I hit Publish Your Comment on someone's blog post.

Thanks for visiting my U on A-Z

bazza said...

Bob: I know exactly what you mean. Few of us are gifted enough to have that skill. I am impressed that you found time to visit during the A-Z! Thanks for dropping in.

Kristin said...

I have had the feeling, both like Bob after hitting publish but also in real life. Usually, though I think of something I did say that I could have left unsaid.

Finding Eliza

bazza said...

Kristin: Ah, saying something that you instantly regret? The French probably have a word for that too! Thanks for visiting.