Tintiddle and l’esprit de l’escalier

Lately I went looking for the origin of the word blurb. The short answer is that Gelett Burgess coined it in 1907, and the long answer is that the more I rummaged the more I found, and the more I found the more I wrote, so I’ve postponed posting my findings until I’ve reduced them to a digestible size.

In the meantime I offer you tintiddle, another word coined by Burgess (1866–1951), who was an American artist, writer, critic and humorist. In his book Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed, he defined tintiddle as:

An imaginary conversation; wit coming too late.

Everyone seems to have moments when they think of a devastating line some moments or months after the opportunity for its expression has passed. It is the perfect quip in all aspects but one: timing. This delayed wit occurred frequently to people descending stairs in 18th century France, and so the French philosopher Denis Diderot (1713–84) called it esprit de l’escalier – literally wit of the staircase – in his book Paradoxe sur le Comédien.

Freud mentioned it in The Interpretation of Dreams, while Emily Stolzenberg suggests that it may be ‘of greater consequence to the speaker’s pride than the listener’s pleasure’. The moment has passed but we imagine delivering the line anyway, to satisfy ourselves or to repair wounded pride.

The French idiom avoir l’esprit de l’escalier means to have the wit of the staircase, in other words to be a bit slow with repartee. If you’ve seen the French film Ridicule (1996), set in 18th century Versailles, you’ll remember the importance of swift comebacks to spare oneself social humiliation. Contemporary usage often drops this connotation; esprit de l’escalier now refers to a witticism too late for any situation, embarrassing or otherwise.

I have heard several people lament the lack of an equivalent term in English, but this lack is only apparent, for tintiddle is that term. You might prefer staircase wit, or even the German Treppenwitz, a calque from esprit de l’escalier. Some translate Diderot’s expression as ‘wit of the staircase’, which could suggests the staircase itself is witty – you can’t be too careful with words.

More on this from The King’s English by H. W. and F. G. Fowler:

The French have had the wit to pack into the words esprit d’escalier the common experience that one’s happiest retorts occur to one only when the chance of uttering them is gone, the door is closed, and one’s feet are on the staircase. That is well worth introducing to an English audience; the only question is whether it is of any use to translate it without explanation. No one will know what spirit of the staircase is who is not already familiar with esprit d’escalier; and even he who is may not recognize it in disguise, seeing that esprit does not mean spirit (which suggests a goblin lurking in the hall clock), but wit.

14 Responses to Tintiddle and l’esprit de l’escalier

  1. Sean Jeating says:

    Hm, Stan, I wonder if ‘Treppenwitz’ is (still) the proper equivalent. At least nowadays, the word’s connotation is rather pejorative (silly joke).
    I think by regretfully pondering about why you’d not have had this ‘splendid idea’ when needed, as a German you do regret your lack of ‘Schlagfertigkeit’ (vivacité d’esprit / quick-wittedness).
    Very interesting post, anyway. Thank you.

    P.S. Just noticed that whilst I’ve been here you visited Omnium and left a commendation for (or ‘of? Ah those prepositions!) Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity. Thanks for that, too.

  2. Stan says:

    Treppenwitz might not be the proper equivalent, Sean. It is years since I studied German, so I appreciate your clarification.

    As to prepositions, one leaves a commendation of something for someone, e.g. I left a commendation of a book for you. So of works better above: it signals something commended.

    Alternatively, you could sidestep this by substituting “commended” for “left a commendation for”. Direct verbs usually trump abstract nouns, unless the latter preserves some subtlety you want to convey.

  3. Sean Jeating says:

    Wooaaahh, Stan! By giving such marvellously understandable explanations (thank you!) you are running the risk that I might now and then feel like asking you holes into your stomach. The latter a German idiom, used f.e., by parents whose little darlings would not stop asking: “Ach, hör(t) doch mal auf, mir Löcher in den Bauch zu fragen.”

    As for ‘Treppenwitz / Schlagfertigkeit’: The thought just arose. And I am glad that you did not take it for nitpicking.

  4. Stan says:

    Sean, your thought that just arose was constructive and welcome. In any case, if ever a blog was born to be nitpicked, it is this one.

  5. […] weeks ago I started writing about the origin of the word blurb, but ended up writing instead about tintiddle, also known as l’esprit de l’escalier. In this post I will finish what I started. Gelett […]

  6. Lucy says:

    Tintiddle. Fabulous.

  7. Stan says:

    Hooray, it seems to be spreading! At this rate it will be widely known and used in a hundred years or so.

    Welcome to Sentence first, Lucy.

  8. […] is the German term that means the same thing.  Tintiddle is an English term that means the same.  It was coined by Gellet Burgess, who also coined the term […]

  9. simon mutegi says:

    Please offer me more explicit words with their meaning in french.Otherwise your research is indeed very good.

  10. AnWulf says:

    1. Wisdom which comes after the event.
    2. A good comeback one thinks of after leaving a social gathering.

  11. Stan says:

    AnWulf: Afterwit is a more transparent term than tintiddle or esprit de l’escalier. Maybe its currency will grow, but it doesn’t seem to be widely known or used at the moment.

  12. Thanks to all for sharing; I was searching for “afterwit” (couldn’t think of it) and might have been tempted to use the German alternative in a pinch.

    • Stan says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Matt. Afterwit has grown on me, but esprit de l’escalier is still my usual term for it. Good to have options, anyway.

  13. […] expression "avoir l’esprit de l’escalier" literally means having as much wit as a […]

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