Word Routes

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Big Bird and the Wit of the Staircase

The most memorable line in Wednesday night's presidential debate, at least if social media is any indication, came when Mitt Romney vowed to cut funding to PBS but added, "I like PBS. I love Big Bird." President Obama had a good comeback for the Big Bird line... except he delivered it a day later.

Reaction to Romney calling out Big Bird was fast and furious on Twitter. The Associated Press reported that tweets mentioning Big Bird were being posted at a rate of 17,000 a minute. A quickly created parody Twitter account, @FiredBigBird, managed to amass about 30,000 followers, despite getting suspended for a while. And a shot of a dejected Big Bird holding a sign saying "Will work for food" circulated far and wide.

But Obama didn't seize on the Big Bird moment until a rally Thursday morning, when, as the New York Times put it, "Obama seemed more energetic than he had the night before." "Thank goodness someone is finally getting tough on Big Bird,” Obama said. "We didn't know Big Bird was driving the federal deficit."

A nice riposte, but it must have left many of the president's supporters wondering where that feisty humor was during the debate itself. There's a great French expression for this sort of delayed response: l'esprit de l'escalier, or "the wit of the staircase." The phrase was coined by the 18th-century polymath Denis Diderot in his Paradoxe sur le Comédien ("Paradox on the Comedian"). As The Yale Book of Quotations explains, "Diderot meant by this the witty rejoinder that one thinks of only after leaving the drawing room and being already on one's way down the staircase."

In their 1906 book The King's English, the Fowler brothers marveled at the compactness of the French expression and argued that there should be an English equivalent (akin to Treppenwitz in German and trepverter in Yiddish):

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.

"Wit of the staircase" does indeed get Diderot's expression across better than "spirit of the staircase," and in fact it had already entered English-language literature, even if the Fowlers weren't aware of it. Searching on Google Books, one can find "wit of the staircase" from 1872, in Six of One by Half a Dozen of the Other, a composite novel written by Harriet Beecher Stowe collaborating with five other writers. And the even more concise "staircase wit" appeared slightly earlier, in 1871.

Does "wit of the staircase" work for modern-day political jabs, or is the reference to drawing-room repartee too dated? How about "wit of the next-day rally"? Leave your suggestions for what we should call Obama's belated zinger in the comments below!

Update: On the October 10 Daily Show, Jon Stewart had his own sarcastic take on Obama's "excellent next-day comeback."

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Democalypse 2012 - Getting Tough on Big Bird
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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday October 5th 2012, 2:23 AM
Comment by: Steven T. (Torrance, CA)
Post-podium wit
Friday October 5th 2012, 2:32 AM
Comment by: Steven T. (Torrance, CA)
Or, perhaps in the current context, "post-podium pugilism" would be better?
Friday October 5th 2012, 4:50 AM
Comment by: Cachelot (Fanore Ireland)
Stale wit
Friday October 5th 2012, 8:16 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
The nbest one of all came through the media: It was the altitude (lack of Oxygen).
Friday October 5th 2012, 8:28 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
POTUS post-podium pugilism
Friday October 5th 2012, 8:45 AM
Comment by: brindle (Canada)
Reminds me of Seinfeld episode, The Comeback, when George drives all the way to Akron to deliver his "jerk store" retort.

Friday October 5th 2012, 8:48 AM
Comment by: Rein T. (Eden Prairie, MN)
The president suffers form Malpromptium -- the condition of being inarticulate when no teleprompter is present.
Friday October 5th 2012, 8:55 AM
Comment by: Ron H.
Retarded wit or delinquent epiphany
Friday October 5th 2012, 10:36 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
During president's argument, I felt bored as I was watching the debate-1, 2012. He was serious presenting the details. He barely looked to his opponent's face giving us the impression of incompetency. It seemed to me he was afraid of his achievement. I noticed his sudden reaction to a quick popped-up noise coming from behind the stage as his opponent (Mr. R.) was talking. Though, he managed his response by quickly turning away, but by then it was clear to me that he was nervous.
There was no substance, no details, no exact planning on his opponents argument yet the challenger was smiling most of the time focusing his lens accurately on the president.
Yes, we the supporters all are disappointed and no aftershock witness will make up it. Let the "staircase wit" be in staired wall at this time.
Friday October 5th 2012, 10:47 AM
Comment by: Janine W. (Barrington, RI)
Elevator wit..... staircase doors make the fire alarm will go off- much too complicated visual there.
Friday October 5th 2012, 12:16 PM
Comment by: jane M. (Mt. Gretna, PA)
There must be a word for "memorized" wit...that is learned in debate practice and regurgitated. It would apply to mitty. What I saw in President Obama was a man exhausted. While his opponent does (whatever) with his day, The President currently is engaged with: the welfare of ALL Americans, Will Israel bomb Iran?, Syrian conflict, Afganastan, India, the burden of the national debt, etc. Those are just the obvious ones.

Red rimmed eyes probably indicated his dirth of sleep while adding the campaign to his mountain of responsibility. I prefer his brain be deliberating on those issues as opposed to coming up with zingers to use in retort to mitty's canned performance.
Friday October 5th 2012, 1:52 PM
Comment by: Geoffrey N. (San francisco, CA)
I always thought it was as one was going up the staircase to go to bed. Is there evidence one way or the other?
Friday October 5th 2012, 3:50 PM
Comment by: Bosse B. (Malmö Sweden)
Friday October 5th 2012, 4:11 PM
Comment by: Deborah G.
So far, I like "elevator wit", which is the most suitable and descriptive for most Americans, I believe. P.S. I think President Obama did just fine, more than just fine!
Friday October 5th 2012, 5:01 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
To address Geoffrey's question about directionality on the staircase: the pertinent quote from Diderot (as given by Wiktionary) is: "l'homme sensible, comme moi, tout entier à ce qu’on lui objecte, perd la tête et ne se retrouve qu’au bas de l’escalier," or "a sensitive man like me, overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, loses his head – and doesn't get it back again till he's at the bottom of the stairs." So it's definitely a downstairs movement.
Friday October 5th 2012, 6:20 PM
Comment by: Gregor M. (Edinburgh United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Isn't this akin to the US English colloquialism 'Monday morning quarterback'? So would 'Monday morning comeback' work? Or a 'sleep on it zinger'? Especially given that this didn't occur to Obama until a day later?
Saturday October 6th 2012, 8:16 AM
Comment by: CharlesC. (Tallahassee, FL)

Chuck B (Tallahassee, FL)
Sunday October 7th 2012, 7:48 AM
Comment by: cynthia O. (nyc, NY)
Après' opportunity
Sunday October 7th 2012, 4:43 PM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Gelett Burgess's 1914 book Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed includes the term tintiddle, which the author defines as: "An imaginary conversation; wit coming too late." Unlike the same writer's blurb, this coinage completely failed to catch on: hardly anyone seems to know about it. I like staircase wit because it's fairly concise and retains the connection to the French phrase.
Wednesday October 10th 2012, 11:51 PM
Comment by: MyrAvery (CA)
I love "post-podium wit." The term I know is "carriage wit," although I'm wracking my brain for where I learned it. The only sourcing I can find from a cursory search is the Scarlet Pimpernel, and there only cited as a Victorian affectation. I'm tempted to blame Bill Bryson but have no evidence there either.
Saturday October 13th 2012, 1:47 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
+1 for "post-podium wit," although "elevator wit" is more applicable to those of us who are not normally called upon to debate in public.

Incidentally, although he didn't have a name for it, Rousseau recognized the phenomenon:

"[I]f not hurried: I can make excellent impromptus at leisure, but on the instant, could never say or do anything worth notice."


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