Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Ghost on the Staircase

By Dorothy Parker of the Algonquin Round Table Mysteries, by J.J. Murphy

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.

Dorothy Parker most recently appeared in YOU MIGHT AS WELL DIE, the second book in the series. She returns in the third installment, A FRIENDLY GAME OF MURDER, in January 2013. Follow Algonquin Round Table Mysteries on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Obviously, I need to hang out on staircases more!

  2. It happens to me all the time, Dorothy. Do you have a solution? Besides what Willow proposes, that is.

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  4. My wit constantly fails me! But not always. I got the better of a cheeky antiques dealer the other day, and left his friends in stitches. Unfortunately the tale is too salacious to tell here.

  5. Erika, I find that nothing sharpens the wit more than a glass of scotch. Of course, nothing dulls it more than two (or more) glasses of scotch.

    Victoria, tell your tale of not-turning-the-other-cheek to the cheeky antiques dealer! (Really, is there any other kind?) Don't be shy, we're all friends here.

  6. I am delighted to learn this has a name, though in my case, it probably ought to be called "the wit of the pillow" as these clever retorts generally occur to me in the middle of the night. Does that mean my subconscious is snarkier than my conscious? Perhaps that's a good thing.

    ~ Krista

  7. Krista, be sure to let us know tomorrow what you think up tonight.

  8. If I didn't suffer from “l'esprit de l'escalier” I'm sure I could answer your question with incredible wit. Bummer.