Treppenwitz is a German word (derived from the French l’esprit de l’escalier) which literally means ‘staircase joke’. We have no similar expression in English, but we have certainly all experienced the phenomenon at some point, I’m sure. It is used to describe those moments when you realise what you should have said after the conversation is over (after you have left and you are in the staircase). You could go back and say it, but we all know that this would be strange and awkward. If you didn’t think of it in the organic conversational moment, you know there’s no going back. It has to stay in the staircase.

Although this is usually associated with the idea of a ‘witty retort’ you realise you could have made (hence: Witz) I like to think of it more broadly. As a German-learner in Germany, I like to think of it as all those times when you are using German and either a) forget the right word, even though you knew it a week ago, and Michael has highlighted it several times in his course, and then remember it thirty minutes later; or b) even worse, thirty minutes after you had been talking in German with someone, you realise you made a silly mistake. And that strange expression they kind of pulled at the time suddenly makes all too much sense.

A recent example for me was when the old lady who lives on the floor below us knocked on our door. She had to knock because our doorbell isn’t working (we have a sign on it which reads: Unsere Klingel funktioniert nicht, bitte klopfen). And it was about this very topic that she wished to talk to us. Despite Germans having a reputation for being a bit grouchy and stand-off-ish, she had gone out of her way to let the Hausmeister know about the non-working doorbell, and she wanted to let me know when he would be around to fix it. Morgen, oder Montag.

I thanked her, obviously, and decided to not lose out on the chance to engage in some conversation practice ‘in the wild’. So, I mentioned that we also had a problem with our hallway light, but that someone was coming around today to fix that. She looked a little quizzical for a moment, and it was only afterward that I realised that I had said ‘jederman’ instead of ‘jemand’ so that I had said that everyone was going to fix the light, not someone.

Now, while this doesn’t seem so bad on the screen while I’m writing it, and it certainly wasn’t as bad as the time when I was working in a bookstore and I asked two young French women ‘Can I love you?’ instead of ‘Can I help you?’ (‘aimer’ instead of ‘aider’) but, because I had felt like I had done so well, it really made me want to bite my fist. And to make it seem even worse, I was on the staircase when I said it! It was Wohnungwitz.

Naturally, the last thing you want to do is let these moments govern your future efforts to communicate. The fact that we have these treppenwitzs (to horribly English-ify the word) in our native tongues should help encourage us to get over the experience and not let it cloud our confidence. Learning to laugh at our occasional gaffs and ‘get on with it’. Germans in particular seem to be very forgiving and have a good capacity at pulling the meaning together from the various words we patch up into what we think is a German sentence, and while they are generally happy to help you get it right if you ask, they seem to be able to deal with foreigners’ Treppenwitz moments and take it as a Witz.