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“A man finds joy in giving an apt reply – and how good is a timely word.” — Proverbs 15:23
L’esprit de l’escalier, or “the staircase mind,” is the French phrase for when the witty reply that you could have used at the bottom of the staircase doesn’t come to you until you reach the top. In one of many wonderful moments in Seinfeld (season 8, episode 13), George Costanza was at a business meeting catered with shrimp cocktails. A co-worker notices George stuffing his face and says, “Hey George, the ocean called and running out of shrimp!” George has no reply (and even if he had a reply, he has a very full mouth). After the meeting, George realizes he has the “perfect” comeback: “The jerk store called and they’re running out of you!” George goes to great lengths to recreate the circumstances, to get in a meeting with the same men, with shrimp, and can deliver his killer line. The man quickly responds, “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best seller!”
I didn’t get Seinfeld when I first watched it. I thought, like most sitcoms, we were supposed to be rooting for the characters. But I saw they were awful people, so how could I root for them? Eventually, I saw that the showrunners and writers knew these were awful people as well, the worst of ourselves. Like George, it is a very rare thing when we have the right thing to say at the right time. It probably is just as well we don’t when it comes to insults. So much damage can be done with our tongues.