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One of my German teachers taught me this very cool word. My current teacher didn't know it.

How widely used is the term Treppenwitz? Is it something that most Germans know?

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treppenwitz

  • It seems that in french, it is an escalated joke? (l’esprit de l’escalier) – mathreadler Apr 15 at 8:04
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    About as widely known as the English equivalent, staircase wit, I would assume. :-þ – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 15 at 10:22
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    Never heard it by anyone, also not read or seen in books or tv ... – OcK Apr 15 at 12:30
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    know yes, use no. It's a very rarely used word but most Germans will understand (roughly) what you mean. – Tom Apr 16 at 9:08
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    I hate this word. That's because even as a 50 years old former newspaper journalist and now education manager, I have no idea what it should mean. It is, however, used, relatively often, but typically in a way suggesting that the user also does not know what it means, just uses it by way of cliché. – Christian Geiselmann Apr 16 at 10:59
44

From my experience, most people have heard of the term, but don't neccessarily know the exact and/or correct meaning. And "Treppenwitz" also isn't regularily used in day-to-day conversations, either.

  • This is backed by the fact that the word has changed its meaning and is an example of Volksetymologie now. – jonathan.scholbach Apr 15 at 6:57
  • @jonathan.scholbach: true - I use the term often enough to know it's current meaning and not it's origin :-o – Shegit Brahm Apr 15 at 7:14
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    I was going to mention that "Treppenwitz der Geschichte" is at least reasonably commonly used and googled for appearances. Well, apparently not even chancellor Merkel can get it right :/ sueddeutsche.de/politik/aktuelles-lexikon-treppenwitz-1.4192050 – smcs Apr 15 at 7:44
  • I second this, most people have head the word, but never used it and only have a very vague idea of its meaning – Hobbamok Apr 15 at 9:24
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    Just as an anecdote: I learned "esprit d'escalier" from English usage and only then realised that "Treppenwitz" is the German equivalent. I had no clear idea of the meaning of the German word before that. – Carsten S Apr 15 at 11:06
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How widely used is the term Treppenwitz? Is it something that most Germans know?

I'd say that every reasonably educated native speaker of German does of course know the Treppenwitz der Geschichte, but that no one or nearly no one would use Treppenwitz alone. Hence, a sentence like Na, das war ja ein Treppenwitz! is unlikely. In a case like that, people would rather say: Ach, warum ist mir das nicht vorhin eingefallen?

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    I've never heard of Treppenwitz der Geschichte before. So apparently I have to reconsider my level of education :P – sebrockm Apr 15 at 11:53
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    I (being Austrian) have never heard this word ever before. And I do consider myself reasonably educated. – michi7x7 Apr 15 at 13:57
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    Anyways, if you search for uses online, you will find that it is mostly used with a strangely unclear meaning: corpora.informatik.uni-leipzig.de/de/res?word=Treppenwitz – michi7x7 Apr 15 at 14:04
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    I've known the term Treppenwitz der Geschichte for a long time as a well educated German speaker. I once looked up the term Treppenwitz and understood it as a lack of spontaneity as an answer mentions: A joking remark you come up with after you left a room and are already using the stars (up/down/out of the house - whatever) – Bernhard Döbler Apr 15 at 16:00
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    "I'd say that every reasonably educated native speaker of German" As you can see by the comments of @sebrockm and michi7x7, this sentence does not hold. Also, it is offending and contemptuous. Please, rephrase that. – rexkogitans Apr 17 at 12:38
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Please note there are mainly two explanations of this word:

  1. Lack of spontaneity

  2. Sarcastic expression of something that went wrong in the past

I would say the second one is the most common understanding of the word nowadays and it is still used here and there, I would not say it is old or outdated. Your question is very opinion based and hard to tell in detail without statistical evidence. Maybe not all Germans know the detailed meaning however they might have heard this in their lifetime for sure.

This is the explanation I prefer:

Heute wird der Ausdruck Treppenwitz auch – abweichend von der ursprünglichen Bedeutung – für „Ironie des Schicksals“, „alberner Witz“ oder „unangemessenes, lächerliches Verhalten“ verwendet. So werden geschichtliche Begebenheiten, die – vor allem nachträglich – absurd oder ironisch wirken, als „Treppenwitz der Geschichte“ bezeichnet.

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Nietzsche erklärt Treppenwitz am schönsten. Daraus leitet er einen wunderschönen Begriff (Treppen-Glück):

Wie der Witz mancher Menschen nicht mit der Gelegenheit gleichen Schritt hält, so dass die Gelegenheit schon durch die Türe hindurch ist, während der Witz noch auf der Treppe steht: so gibt es bei anderen eine Art von Treppen-Glück, welches zu langsam läuft, um der schnellfüssigen Zeit immer zur Seite zu sein: das Beste, was sie von einem Erlebnis, einer ganzen Lebensstrecke zu geniessen bekommen, fällt ihnen erst lange Zeit hinterher zu, oft nur als ein schwacher, gewürzter Duft, welcher Sehnsucht erweckt und Trauer — als ob es möglich gewesen wäre — irgendwann — in diesem Element sich recht satt zu trinken: nun aber ist es zu spät.” Menschliches, Allzumenschliches II, Friedrich Nietzsche, 1879

(Hervorhebung von mir)

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