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The meaning and origin of the expression: The spirit of the staircase

The spirit of the staircase

What's the meaning of the phrase 'The spirit of the staircase'?

'The spirit of the staircase' is a witty response which, frustratingly, comes to one's mind just after the opportunity to utter it is passed.

What's the origin of the phrase 'The spirit of the staircase'?

'The spirit of the staircase' or, as it is often written, 'the spirit of the stairway', is one of those obliging phrases that has a definitive origin, in that it is a quotation from Denis Diderot's Paradoxe sur le Comédien, written 1773-78.

In the text Diderot retells a situation in which Jacques Necker makes a remark that perplexes him:

This confounds me and reduces me to silence, because the sensitive man, like me, overwhelmed, loses his head and finds himself at the foot of the stairs.

It is one of the few phrases that has come into English as a translation from the French. The original, which even my schoolboy French is up to translating, is 'L'esprit de l'escalier'. Most of the French phrases that have been adopted into English are used in their original French form, even the similar 'Esprit de corps'.

It isn't a commonly used phrase in the English-speaking world, which is a pity as it encapsulates a feeling that we must all surely have had.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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