L’esprit de l’escalier: the bane of my life

Our young blogger Charlotte writes about the words she can fail to find.

Are you familiar with that wonderful sensation of enlightenment when you discover a foreign word or expression which puts an abstract concept – usually an emotion or an experience unable to be translated into English – into one word? Recently, at a creative writing course, I was handed two sheets of such words: a treasure trove of bizarre, subconscious feelings translated into words I could not pronounce, but to which I could completely relate.

Schadenfreude, in German, is the most famous example: it describes the pleasure we sometimes feel at somebody else’s misfortune. But have you ever heard of mokita, a word from the Kivilia language of Papua New Guinea, used to describe that unmistakeable elephant in the room feeling: the truth we all know but agree not to talk about? Or the particularly relevant Turkish hüzün: “the gloomy feeling that things are in decline and that the situation – often political in nature – will probably get gradually worse.”

I find it interesting that English, one of the most sprawling and diverse languages, has yet been unable to form new words for these universal emotions and experiences. As long as we are forced to use them, untranslatable words are infinitely interesting, and all the more so if you have a grasp of the language from which they are taken. This is what made it particularly fascinating for me when, just over a year ago, I found my favourite ever untranslatable phrase, this time from my second language, French: l’esprit de l’escalier.

Literally “wit of the staircase”, this curious French phrase was coined by Denis Diderot, a French philosopher who expressed this quandary in his 1830 Paradoxe sur le comédien:

“l’homme sensible, comme moi, tout entier a ce que qu’on lui objecte, perd la tête et ne se retrouve qu’au bas de l’escalier” (“A sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again [when he finds himself] at the bottom of the stairs.”)

In other words, l’esprit de l’escalier describes the frustration people feel when they think of a brilliant come-back to something somebody has said when it is far too late. It varies from person to person, but the point at which I think of something as a clever reply is always past that point of no return; the bottom of the stairs, after which dragging back the previous topic of conversation is futile, and would not occur without a strange look from the other party as they wonder why you are bringing that up again. Or, most likely, they won’t remember talking about what you have been turning over in your mind since the end of the conversation, and your clever, witty remark will have been in vain.

I have just finished volunteering in a job which meant that I was able to meet famous authors on a weekly basis. Originally, it was idyllic, but over the weeks it became a kind of torture, because in my head, I rehearsed discussing writing, politics, language and my hobbies with them, possibly even showing them my writing...but in reality, I answered their polite questions with an inane smile, nodding hopelessly at everything they said, and hoping against hope that I’d have a sudden strike of inspiration, or that they’d persist beyond my boring exterior and say something, anything, to break the barrier and get me talking. Unfortunately, this never happened.

Considering I am due at university in less than a week, I have precious little time to recover from this ailment which has dogged me since the middle of secondary school. I’d like to think that I’m not the only young person in this position, but a common characteristic of l’esprit de l’escalier is that I am constantly under the impression that everybody else in the world is able to speak fluently and quick-wittedly. It is especially humiliating to think that I could be doomed to a life of simply listening, nodding in the background, and generally being uninteresting while the charismatic people climb the social ladder.

I could be entirely psychological and consider the theory that this is why I write. My backspaces can be the equivalent of uncertain “er”s, “erm”s, “hmm”s and “well...”s. I can replace them with opinions and turns of phrase. Above all, I have time to think. Unfortunately, though, the real world is not like that.

The Internet has surprisingly little to offer on the subject, and most of the websites I came across were in French. But I wish that the subject was discussed more. It is a curious phrase; delightful in its composition, but describes an experience which can be very demoralising. And I can only hope that as I am thrown into the terrifying deep end of university in just under a week’s time, I can overcome this problem and become the confident student I’d love to be.