We have all experienced that sinking realization – moments, hours, or even days after a conversation has ended – of what we should have said.  We think of the perfect witticism, but sadly it is too late.  We can only indulge in a fantasy of having delivered cool, unassailable logic framed as a clever riposte.  In reality, we stood there mute and clueless.

According to Wikipedia (and if it’s in Wikipedia, it must be true, right?) this is called “afterwit” or in French “L’esprit de l’escalier” – staircase wit.  (I have no idea how to pronounce that.  I just thought it would be fun to include something in French.)  If I understand the idiom correctly, it means that you were not able to come up with an apt reply until you were wandering through the stairwell, having left the room where the verbal exchange took place, and are now far removed from the conversation.


Conversely, there are those days when we experience the opposite – those occasions where only a biting answer comes to mind, leaving the questioner raw and wounded for the asking.  What name can be assigned to situations where one can only think of singularly snarky replies?  Do you know what it’s called when the only responses that spring to mind are sarcastic and painfully incisive retorts?

Well, I’ll tell you.  That’s called being a nitwit.  Or in French “etre un imbecile” – roughly translated as “being a jerk.”  (I think.  I don’t actually speak French, but let’s just pretend, shall we?)

Delicately balanced between these extremes are those moments of True Wit.   These are the moments where we find that we can ably disarm any verbal attack with style and ease.  We need not resort to humiliating digs on the questioner’s intelligence, nor are we caught tongue tied and unable to respond to a continuous volley of inane reasoning.  We answer assaults on logic with amusing epigrams and then are able to continue with clever exposition of our opinions.

This is known as being “in the zone” or “bringing it” or in French as…something else.  (I told you – I don’t speak French.  Let’s just let this go, okay?)

You can expect to experience a variety of these situations throughout your life.  The likelihood of occurrence will be as follows:

Afterwit – Happens after every single job interview you go on.  Also frequently occurs after first dates, after being verbally taunted in middle school through college, and after having your first fight in a new relationship.

Nitwit – Occurs when speaking to telemarketers (justifiable), while fighting with your spouse or significant other, or when trying to be funny at parties and instead you come off looking like a self centered dolt.

True Wit – Will happen on only one magical day in your life, usually wasted on something inconsequential such as debating the difference between cumulus and cirrus clouds with a stranger while in line at the grocery store.  Never occurs on first dates or in middle school.

I know, I know.  It appears that we can never seem to say the right thing at the right time.  It’s not fair.

C’est la vie.  (Whatever that means.)

3 thoughts on “Witless

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