The English language is melting pot of many influences, mainly from the Germanic languages introduced in the 5th-7th centuries AD from the German/Dutch regions. Add in more Scandinavian influences from the viking settlements in 7th-9th centuries and language from the Norman conquest in the late 15th Century together with the many influences from Greek and Latin and we arrive at the language we all use today. Consequently the terminology and common phrases around staircases are varied making their etymology is an interesting thing.

Word Origins

The word ‘stair’ itself is equally a hybrid from the early influences combining the Old English word ‘stæger; (related to stīg narrow path), ‘stīgan to ascend/descend, ‘steigurligr‘ meaning upright from Old Norse and the Middle Dutch word ‘steiger’ for ladder. Conversely some the key components such as newel and balustrade have their origins in the French language.

The word ‘staircase’ generally refers the complete flight of stairs including  posts, rails and balustrading, but the term itself arrived in the 1620s with the ‘case’ referring the frame or casing which enclosed the stairs.

A ‘Flight of Stairs’ is representative of the journey upwards through the air, further symbolised by the staircase ‘landings’ between flights.

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Phrases

With staircases being such a significant and long established part of our culture, it’s no wonder that they have entered into our use of language in other ways.

They are famously referred to in the rhyming slang of London’s East End as ‘Apples & Pairs’, sometimes even abbreviated to just “the apples” means “I’m going up the stairs” while the act of going up the stairs to bed (especially in the north of England) is often accompanied by the phrases ‘Up the dancers’ or ‘Up the wooden hill’.

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One colloquial expression used in the North of England during bad weather is ‘Raining Stair-Rods’.  Stair-rods are the metal rods that hold stair-carpets in place on each step and refers to the rain being so heavy that it appears as stair-rods falling from the sky.

Perhaps our favourite expression drives from Staircases is the French phrase L’esprit de l’escalier or l’esprit d’escalier  translating as ‘staircase wit’. This phrase used for  the predicament of  thinking of the perfect reply to a retort too late. the phrase was reportedly coined by French encyclopedist and philosopher Denis Diderot.

Other phrases refer the the appearance of the staircase itself, in medical circles a staircase can refer to a series of reactions or responses in progressively increasing or decreasing intensity, so that a chart shows a continuous rise or fall to resemble a staircase.
If you’ve got any other phrases we’ve missed, let us know!