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.
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.
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