Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Word of the Month: Treppenwitz

Word of the Month: Index

A Treppe is a stair(case), and Witz means "joke." In combination, they indicate an event that, in retrospect, looks like a bad joke because it had completely unintended, negative consequences—it's an initiative that backfired in a way that would be funny, if it weren't so serious. The term can be applied to a wide range of situations, from personal predicaments to the ironies of history. An example would be the hiring of a new CEO for a troubled company who was expected to turn it around, but leads it into bankruptcy instead—the hiring becomes a Treppenwitz in retrospect.

But what in the world does a staircase have to do with something that turns out to be a failure in the end? In order to understand this, one has to know the term's history. It is a translation of the French phrase l'esprit de l'escalier ("wit of the staircase"), which was coined in the 18th century and refers to a clever rejoinder or reposte one thinks about too late, i.e., after one has already reached the bottom of the stairs on one’s way home from a party [Source]. L'esprit de l'escalier became Treppenwitz in the German translation, where Witz was used not in the sense of "joke," but in the sense of "cleverness" or "wit." But that meaning has become, by now, secondary to "joke" and along with this, a Treppenwitz came to be understood not as a clever retort thought of too late, but as something that looks like a bad joke in retrospect. When you hear someone speak of a Treppenwitz in present-day Germany, you can be sure that the latter is the intended meaning.


Heika said...

Ever since I read this post, I have been finding situations where it seems to fit perfectly. My rescue dog who looked so darling but turned out to have so many problems is a Treppenwitz (to some degree).

And right now with his plan to bomb Syria, Barack Obama is looking to me like a real Treppenwitz, given how enthusiastic I was about him initially.

As always, great word and excellent explanation.

Ulrich said...

Heika: Your dog story reminds me of a dog we once had who was supposed to function as a watch dog, but turned out to great any stranger at the door enthusiastically as a new friend.

W.r.t. to Treppenwitze (that's the plural) in US Mid-East policy, I believe nothing beats the invasion of Iraq: Not only did it not accomplish anything it was supposed to accomplish (find WMDs, establish a lasting democracy), it also had rather disastrous side-effects, at tremendous costs, prominently among them the establishment of Iran as a dominant power in the region--the US did them the great favor of removing their arch enemy and allowing fellow-Shiites to gain power. It may well be the greatest foreign policy debacle in the history of the US.

Come to think of it, it may have been too horrendous a failure to be called a Treppenwitz--there was absolutely nothing funny about it, not even in a bad way.