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L'esprit de l'escalier or l'esprit d'escalier (literally, staircase wit) is a French term that describes the predicament of thinking of the perfect comeback too late.

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as follows:


A witty remark thought of too late, on the way home; the clever comment you wish you had delivered


"When he bragged about sleeping like a baby, I should have added the bit about waking up crying every two hours, but that's just esprit de l'escalier. At the time I just nodded and said nothing."

Is there an English term for that?

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4 Answers 4

I've only ever known it in its literal translation as staircase wit.

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I agree. If there was a generally-known English equivalent, I think OP might reasonably assume a dictionary would have included it in their definition of the French term. Come to that, if we had our own equivalent we probably wouldn't use the French version anyway, so it wouldn't be in our dictionaries in the first place! – FumbleFingers Mar 28 '13 at 17:02
up vote 3 down vote accepted

English speakers sometimes call this escalator wit.

Afterwit can also be a synonym for this concept, with forewit as its antonym.

Definition of afterwit in Wiktionary:

  1. Wisdom which comes after the event.

    After-wits are dearly bought, Let thy fore-wit guide thy thought. ― Southwell.
    There is no recalling what’s gone and past; so that afterwit comes too late, when the mischief is done. — L’Estrange

  2. The lack of forethought.

    This week I am fearing afterwit as I create the outline for my next novel ... — Grace Tierney, 2010
    One good forewit is worth two afterwits. — Saying/Proverb

  3. A good comeback one thinks of after leaving a social gathering.

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"20/20 hindsight" is a common expression that can be used for your scenario - meaning that hindsight has perfect vision (20/20 vision) because you have the luxury of time to remember or formulate a better response

Definition of 20/20 hindsight from "Perfect understanding of an event after it has happened; - a term usually used with sarcasm in response to criticism of one's decision, implying that the critic is unfairly judging the wisdom of the decision in light of information that was not available when the decision was made."

"When he bragged about sleeping like a baby, I should have added the bit about waking up crying every two hours, but that's just "20/20 hindsight". At the time I just nodded and said nothing."

Edited to add definition of expression "20/20 hindsight"

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I agree with something along the lines of 20/20 hindsight.

Also something like missed "the comeback" or "clever retort"

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There’s nothing in “the comeback” or “clever retort” that reflects the “too late” part of the question – and all you accomplish by adding the word “missed” is to get other ways of phrasing the definition. But the question is asking for a term that fits that definition. At least “20/20 hindsight” is an established idiom. – Scott Jul 15 '14 at 20:37

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