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Laura K. Lawless

French expression: Avoir l'esprit de l'escalier

By April 15, 2011

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 What does the idiomatic French expression avoir l'esprit de l'escalier mean? Click to learn all about it, and then come back here to share your thoughts.
More: French expressions | Common French phrases


April 15, 2011 at 10:21 am
(1) Lloyd says:

In your two examples, why does the expression mean not to have a comeback in the present, but to have an excellent one in the second, the past?
Why wouldn’t the second expression also mean I still didn’t have a comeback, still stuck on the staircase of my wit.

Thanks in advance for a reply (I presume here or to my undisclosed email). This is my first use of this aspect of french.about.com

April 15, 2011 at 11:11 am
(2) Laura K Lawless says:

As I explained in the lesson, in the present tense it refers to an ongoing affliction – I always suffer from not being able to think of a good response in time.

In the passé composé it’s a single instance of coming up with a response too late for it to be useful.

April 15, 2011 at 10:29 am
(3) Lauriate Roly. says:

Obviously I have been moving in the wrong circles.
I can honestly say, I personally have never heard the expression “avoir l’esprit de l’escalier” used. Since reading about it here on this site, I have mentioned it to my French friends and they also fail to recognize it. Most of these friends are Franch Canadian, but even a few from Paris say they have heard of it but only in the most obscure way and can’t say they ever heard it in general usage, only sometimes in written literature. Perhaps this is only a very odd instance when a phrase used by others completely escapes the recognition of my uninformed few. Who can tell?
Well, once again, as often happens, we certainly learned something new and interesting here to-day.

April 15, 2011 at 1:19 pm
(4) Cancoillotte says:

Je découvre aussi l’expression.
Un équivalent connu serait ‘j’étais sec’ ou ‘Il m’a séché’. Certes c’est moins élégant que l’esprit de l’escalier, mais on a plus de chance de se faire comprendre.

April 16, 2011 at 11:05 am
(5) Blair says:

I have discovered something good about myself. But I wonder what is it?
Let me explain myself. When learning this french term avoir l’esprit de l’escalier as it means to be unable to think of witty comebacks in time. This is what I learnt about myself but in english. I do find myself unwitty around friends sometimes I don’t want to be witty. But when learning this term in french it causes excitment. Is the french language more of a life language than english language, so it seems?

How would my name be spelt and pronounanced in french?

April 16, 2011 at 1:07 pm
(6) Lauriate Roly. says:

If I may, I would like to take a stab at answering Blair about his rather perplexing question:
Your name is Blair. It would be spelled exactly the same in French. Regarding the pronunciation, this would be unchanged except for the natural intonation that a French person might give to saying almost any English word. However, the French language is certainly a “life” language and is quite malleable and can be made to suit the occasion.
In your particular case, you mention you find yourself unwitty around friends sometimes but you don’t want to be witty. Then try this; instead of Blair, have your friends pronounce your name as Droll , or better still , in French as Drôle. That way you can either be witty or not witty. (comique or bizarre). Could that make you feel good about yourself?

April 16, 2011 at 4:36 pm
(7) Dawn says:

What a judgemental expression. English does not have an equivalent and I’m glad. I think I have decided to forget this expression rather than learn it. However, I will ask my brother about it. He is English/French nationality, fluent and goes to lots of parties.

April 18, 2011 at 2:00 am
(8) Douglas Sharpe says:

Mes amis, pardon my English. Avoir un coup d’escalier may or not be derived from Diderot. I came across the phrase in a written-in-English article by Christopher Hitchens a couple or three years ago, who wrote that coup d’escalier may had been coined by the dictionary guy, pre-Revolution — Hitchens wrote (in effect) that he wasn’t sure about the actual origin. Anyway, it is wonderful. Very funny. Us English speakers should, if we could, come up anything halfway as good. Yes, the phrase lends itself more to writing & literature than to spoken French. I think it is great.

April 18, 2011 at 8:44 am
(9) Lauriate Roly. says:

It is a good phrase and it is funny as well as interesting. The only English phrase that I found to have a similar reaction is one that I hear occasionally which always strikes my funny bone and implies a similar message – it goes, “Well, I was dumb as a hammer”.

April 21, 2011 at 2:46 am
(10) Adeline says:

I am French and never heard about this expression.
As Douglas said, it’s a nice expression in writting. I won’t recommend it in a casual conversation as people might think you are making a ‘smart arse’ comment. Excuse my French!

April 21, 2011 at 11:30 pm
(11) Bill Mitchell says:

Besides litterature, another place you will find this expression is in the film Ridicule, with one of my favorite actrices, Fanny Ardant.

December 21, 2011 at 7:05 am
(12) Henri says:

L’expression en question n’est pas d’un usage fréquent(pour Adeline),parceque ce n’est ni un proverbe ni un dicton courant.C’est seulement le mot d’un écfivain qui,dans des mémoieres,se plaignait de manquer de répartie dans les conversations et de ne jamais trouver les bonnes réponses au bon moment,après avoir quitté la conversation et les gens ou les amis avec lesquels il était,que quand,les ayant quités,il ne trouvait une bonne réplique qu’une fois arrivé en bas de l’escalier,trop tard pour briller en société.

Ce n’est qu’une citation littéraire dont on n’a (heureusement) pas forcément l’usage tous les jours.

Douglas pense qu’elle vient de Diderot,je croyais qu’elle était de J.J .Rousseau. Mais cela n’a pas une grande importance.Sans faire assaut d’érudition, cela ne ressemble guère au premier qui avait la langue bien pendue et pas dans sa poche,mais plutôt à cet introverti de Rousseau.

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