# Day 334 (Of ‘staircase wit’…)

It was a term introduced to us by our High School English teacher ~ “staircase wit” or a witty rejoinder that strikes you much later when you replay the verbal exchange in your mind. The reference was a well-known exchange between GK Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw. On one occasion the portly Chesterton had remarked to the lean and gaunt Shaw, “To look at you, anyone would think a famine had struck England”; to which Shaw had retorted with, “To look at you, anyone would think you had caused it!” Our teacher was of the opinion that the ability to retaliate thus is an inborn gift very few have, the rest of us can lay claim to only ’staircase wit’. As kids we would refer to it as a ‘tube-light answer’ (a reference to the fact that tube-lights those days took their time to flicker and light up after being switched on!) And someone who could not immediately catch the punchline of a joke was for the same reason referred to as a ‘tube light!’ A dictionary will tell you that the expression is a calque of the French “esprit de l’escalier” (esprit~wit + escalier~stairs). The original French phrase was coined by the 18th century French philosopher and writer Denis Diderot, best known as the contributor to the “Encyclopedie”, to indicate that one quick, perfect counter (specially to an insult or criticism) you think of on your way out (literally on the stairs!)
The other day while watching a re-run of that old favourite TV show “Seinfeld” (one of those shows whose humour can make you laugh even if you are watching it for the umpteenth time!), the character of George Costanza had us in splits with his portrayal of the frustration of not being able to come up with the right riposte. In this particular episode, George has some friction with one of his co-workers who notices him gorging on shrimp cocktail at a meeting and remarks,
“Hey George the ocean called; they’re running out of shrimp!”
George seethes inwardly but cannot think of a befitting reply at that moment. Later he thinks he should have flung back at the other man with,
“Well, the Jerk Store called and they are running out of you!”
His friends Jerry, Elaine and Kramer pitch in with their own suggestions.
Elaine offers, “Your cranium called. It’s got some space to rent”
Jerry suggests, “The zoo called. You’re due back by six.”
George, of course, is so obsessed with his own witty reply that he tries to recreate a similar encounter so that he can make use of that line. He flies to another city to attend a meeting where he knows he will meet the man again. He even brings in a tray of shrimp just to deliver his rejoinder. Only the other man simply retorts back with,
“What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best seller!!” leaving George fumbling and fuming all over again!!
There are times when many of us can identify with George’s predicament. We would all like to think of ourselves as “witty”; only for some of us the clever remark is more of a hindsight, just ’staircase wit’.
As Simon Barnes aptly says,
“I can think of hard, tough, one-line put-downs, but only after the person concerned has left the room. This affliction, esprit de l’escalier, is one of the principal reasons why people become writers!” (or as in my case—post blogs!!)


About sunsur81

A gatherer of thoughts...exploring myths,metaphors and expressions of life...
This entry was posted in 365 Days Blog-roll, In Lighter Vein, Thought snippets. Bookmark the permalink.

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