Do French people really use the expression “Ooh La La”?

 

So, Marie, from somewhere (I suspect the US considering the question) asked the following thing:

Do French people really use the expression “Ooh La La”? If so, what does it mean? Is it used more by women or does everyone say it? How do the French pronounce it? Do you use it?

 

This question reminds me of an interesting anecdote that took place during my first months in the US, a long long time ago.

Ooh La La

Quiz: can you tell why I chose this picture to illustrate this article?

One day, I announced something to that friend, can’t remember what, some good news of some sort, and her response was “Ooh la la!” with a big smile from her part. Then, she looked at me, expecting some sort of reaction to her “ooh la la”.

At that very moment, my thoughts were split between:

  • “Why did she just say ooh la la?”
  • “Why that big grin on her face? Is she thinking this is cool or something?”
  • “Why is she expecting some sort of reaction from me right now? I mean, she’s a friend, I don’t want to publicly embarrass her, she just embarrassed herself enough with that ooh la la.”

So, I didn’t react at all. I just pretended that it never happened, and moved on with the conversation and with my life (we did stay friends for a while despite that unfortunate non-conversation).

 

A little while after this episode, I finally understood what had happened. She thought that French people said “Ooh la la” all the time, so she said it to impress me or something along the lines of “see, I know the expression, ain’t you proud of me?” She must have been extremely disappointed by my lack of reaction.

 

Now, onto the answer of Marie’s question(s):

No, French people don’t say “ooh la la.” I have never ever heard a French person say it. What you may hear from a French person is “oh la la!” (with a “Oh” and not a “Ooh”), except that this expression implies very different things, both in terms of meaning, context and impressions it gives.

See, “Oh la la!” is used as an expression of surprised or shock, but usually it tends to be a negative surprise or shock.

I don’t think I have ever heard “Oh la la!” from a French person when something positive happened. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but it’s very unlikely.

And another important point to keep in mind is that if I hear a French person say “Oh la la!” I won’t think that they’re fashionable, trendy, cool, chic or anything similar.
If I hear a kid or an elder say it, I may barely notice. If I hear it from the mouth of an adult, I may be shocked myself or burst out into laughter, depending on who said it and why they did.

Actually, the only adults I can imagine saying “Oh la la!” publicly are relatively stuck up people. The kind that will never dare to curse and that will hardly ever use slang. Keep in mind that in France, cursing doesn’t hold the same stigma that it does in some English speaking countries. In the South, some curse words are even used as mere punctuation. Normal, sane adult French people won’t say “oh la la” except very very rarely. They’ll prefer variations around “Oh putain!

One final thing. I don’t think that there are many things more pathetic than trying to imitate another poorly known culture in order to try to look cool. For example, using French words in English to look fashionable or sophisticated when one doesn’t exactly know the word, it’s meaning, the context in which it is used and all that.

And, my special winner prize in being ridiculously pathetic is using “Ooh la la!” in order to sound French.

Cheers.

 

 

 

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David Billa

David was born and raised in the French South West. After a few years in the US and a few more in Paris, he finally settled down in Japan. He blogs here about his various experiences and travels, with an emphasis on his home country, France.

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6 Responses

  1. Tatiacha says:

    Americans don’t say ooh la la to sound french or impress anyone, at some point in the 50s or 60 in hollywood it became and expression about a situation or , someone sexy. Like a wife gets ready for a night out with her husband and she comes down the stairs ready to go and he says oooh la la meaning you look great, sexy etc. I’m not sure when it started but I was born in 1963 and I heard it all through the 60s and 70s. The grin was probably because she was flirting with you by saying that, but you din’t catch on LOL

    • David Billa says:

      Yes, it became a reference to something sexy (or impressive, or exciting), in reference of France, French chic, the French or something along those lines.
      I’ve heard it in many non-sexy contexts, almost always referenced to something pertaining to French or France, and no, I know for a fact that she wasn’t hitting on me, and there was nothing sexy or romantic about the situation and the thing that triggered her “ooh la la”.

  2. Marie-Noëlle says:

    I, a French woman, uses “Oh la la” very often (not to say all the time). And everybody around me do. We are not even aware of it ! Just like Cédric says above, it can be translated as “oh my god”.
    It can be negative or positive… just dépends on the situations. The difference is in the intonation.

    Any good piece of news can bring about a “oh la la” in a positive intonation (that can be sounded as excitment /joy /admiration…). It can be an important thing or a small one :
    – “oh la la ! he DID it !”
    – You walk by a shop window and you spot something you like “oh la la ! it’s beautiful !”
    – You discover a gorgeous scenery / a nice hotel room / a new ice scream flavour / … “oh la la ! I like it !”
    – you hear about a wedding / a birth / a party /a baby’s first step / a diploma obtaining / …
    – a child gives you a drawing… “oh la la that’s lovely ! Thank you !”

    And any bad piece of news can bring about a “oh la la” in a negative intonation (that can be sounded as disappointment/ dismay/ unbelief…). Again it can be about an important thing or a small one :
    – the dog did a stupid thing : “oh la la… ”
    – Spending some time trying to park my car, I would say “Oh la la ! I’m going to be late !”
    – Watching the news on TV and hearing about an air crash, I would say “oh la la !”
    – Dog days… “Oh la la … I’m so hot !”
    etc …

    The young can also use it with a sense of humour (hiding their eyes or expressing embarrassment) with disaprovement or disaster-like intonation :
    – A friend’s clumsy behaviour…
    – A parent’s word sounding old-fashioned
    etc …

  3. Antoine says:

    Hi ! I’m french, I lived in the South of France, i’m 20 years old, and I will present theretranscribe of the expression “oh la la”

    “Oh la la” is used very often to represent a lot of feeling.

    – Bored, expasperated : “(R)Oh la la, quel malheur …”
    – énervé, frustré : “Roh là là, qu’est-ce que c’est long !!” in a supermarket queue for instance. You can notice ce R before “Oh” in the first word, pronunced with hoarsely.
    – Surprised but full of joy : “Oh là làaaaa, c’est magnifique !!” is the equivalent of “OMG ! It’s beautiful !”
    – Discomfort : “Oh la la, quelle chaleur éprouvante …” when you’re sweating profusely and you ventilate your shirt.
    – Pleasure, like in Devious Maids, season 3 : “Ouuuuh la la, petite coquine, tu es très sexy 😏” Ou la la, here, is the same than the perverse emoji, and you can use it when your wife use a costume to to spice up your sex night.

    BUT NO, OH LA LA IS NOT USED when you drink a coffee, like in devious maids s3e8 –”

    Finally, you have to notice that Oh la la is part of colloquial language and the “elegant” people don’t use, or very little, this expression. It’s common language, not supported language

  4. Erin Kathleen says:

    I have to agree with the two previous comments. “Oh la la” is a commonly used cilloqialism as both a positive and negative interjective in France, with additional pairs of “la” for additional emphasis. I’ve heard up to eight pairs used. I wouldn’t use the term with other Americans because they mostly wouldn’t appreciate the context.

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