The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue. So I was as surprised as anyone when my lack of wit failed me at lunch today. We were discussing the odd custom of the “ladies’ entrance” at certain nightclubs. And Mr. Woollcott looked directly at me and said, “We need a lady’s point of view. Too bad none joined us today.”
I should have responded, “Speak for yourself, Lady Macbeth,” or something to that effect. (He’s quite a queen bee.) But this riposte didn’t occur to me until afterward.
How many times has this happened to you? You don’t come up with a comeback until it’s too late, and by then your zinger has lost all its zing. My good friend Mr. Benchley has a term for this delayed response—the “way homer,” because you don’t think of it until you’re on your way home.
Not to be outdone, the French (of course, the French!) have a much more imaginative term for it: “L'esprit de l'escalier,” which translates literally as “the spirit of the staircase,” although a more appropriate translation may be “the wit of the staircase.”
This colorful term comes from the French salons, where they traded more insults than the boys at the stock exchange trade pork belly futures. The salon room was located on the second floor, so it was only when you were descending the staircase that you encountered your esprit de l'escalier.
Can you recall an occasion when this happened to you? Go ahead. Let it out, kid. As I should have said to Mr. Woollcott: Speak for yourself.