The “staircase joke” or “staircase wit” possibly gets its name from the witty retort or clever comeback that comes to mind when you are on your way out, walking down the stairs following a situation, i.e. after it’s too late.
We’ve all experienced a situation where a snappy response fails us in the heat of the moment, but only pops up after the fact or perhaps later in the day or on the way home. It’s known as the Treppenwitz phenomena.
The term originated from the French expression “l’esprit de l’escalier,” which translates to “staircase joke” as well. It was made popular in Germany by the author William Lewis Hertslet in his book titled Der Treppenwitz der Weltgeschichte (“The Staircase Joke of World History”). In the book, published in 1882, the author writes about tragic ironies of historical events.
Today, the term Treppenwitz is used in German to describe a silly joke, an irony of fate, or inappropriate, silly behavior.
By Regine Poirier, German Embassy