Some people think that the international language is love. Some people think it’s food. Landmark Theatres thinks it’s cinema.
I think that the international language is language itself. Specifically: idioms.
The funny thing about idioms — turns of phrase like “the ball is in your court” or “that’s the last straw” — is that they translate, but only indirectly. Idioms are unique to specific communities — communities that might seem vastly different from our own. But idioms surprise and delight because, when we manage to make sense of them, they describe behaviors and events that we all know.
The Danish idiom “hygge”, for example, describes the sudden intimacy that comes from sitting around a campfire with other people. I’ve never been to Denmark, and I certainly don’t speak Danish, but I know what “hygge” means. I get it. I’ve experienced it firsthand.
Idioms like that take my breath away. They make me happy. Call me Pollyanna, call me a dewy-eyed optimist, but idioms suggest that humans — no matter how far apart we live, no matter our superficial differences — share a lot of common ground. (Here are a few more I enjoy.)
One of my favorite idioms is “l’esprit de l’escalier”, or “the wit of the staircase”. I first heard the term in Ridicule, a film from the mid-90s that did a great job of describing the hierarchy of humor devised by the aristocracy of Enlightenment-era Europe. During that period, wit was prized above other forms of humor because it was funny without being corny or facile or overt. (One of my profs once said that wit was particularly treasured in 17th century France because it didn’t cause listeners to laugh out loud, which would’ve exposed their rotten teeth. Who knows if that’s true, but it’s a good story, no?)
The wit of the staircase doesn’t describe wit, per se. It describes that moment of leaving a party or a meeting, when suddenly it pops into your head: the perfect comeback for the argument you’ve just had, the perfect snark you could’ve snarked, if only you’d thought of it five minutes earlier.
I understand the wit of the staircase. In fact, I was obsessed with it long before I knew it was a thing. Or more accurately, I was — and am — obsessed with reliving, perfecting, and correcting conversations, especially those that don’t go my way.
I also think about discussions that never took place, or those that might take place in the future. For example, when I read an interview with some right-wing bigot who compares marriage equality with slavery, I can spend hours poking holes in her arguments, devising counter-arguments, running through heated debates as though they’re happening right then and there. I do this a lot in the shower. I’m surprised that my husband hasn’t dragged me to a counselor for all the babbling I do getting ready for work.
Frankly, when I’m alone with my thoughts — driving to the grocery store, walking home for lunch — I spend most of my time dwelling on what I could’ve said, what I would’ve said, what I will say. Maybe it’s because I want to fix my failed arguments, maybe it’s because I’m anticipating confrontations that almost never come to pass, maybe it’s because I enjoy hearing the sound of my own voice and thinking myself clever.
Am I crazy? Delusional? Arrogant? Is it normal to have these sorts of fights with yourself?