Apr 222012





Something amazing is happening today!

No, unfortunately, this is not Nicolas Sarkozy being kicked out of the Presidential Election (although the results won’t be in for another 12 hours or so, so we never know), it’s more modestly a new post on Ask a Frenchman! The first of 2012… and we’re late April… I should be embarrassed. I’m not. Let’s move on.

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 makes me think of an interesting anecdote that happened to me during my first months in the US, a very long time ago.

Extra kuddos from me if you get why this picture.

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 from my part to her “ooh la la”.

At that moment, my thoughts were split between:

- “Why did she 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 embarrassed herself enough with that ooh la la.”

So, I didn’t react, pretended that never happened, and moved on with the conversation and with my life (we stayed friends for a while despite that unfortunate non-conversation, but one day I realized that she was a nutcase and cut my ties with her (no link to the “ooh la la” incident though).

A little while after this episode, I finally understood why she said it. She thought that French people said that all the time, so she said it to impress me or something along those lines, and 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’s mind 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 too, but usually it’s a negative surprise or shock.

I don’t think I have ever heard “Oh la la!” from a French person when something positive happened.

And another important point to keep in mind is that if I hear a French person say “Oh la la!” I won’t think they’re fashionable, trendy, cool, whatever. If it’s from the mouth of a kid or an older person, I may simply not pay attention. 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.

Actually, the only adults I can imagine say it are relatively stuck up people. The kind that never dares to curse, barely use slang (remember, in France, cursing doesn’t hold the same stigma than in some English speaking countries, in the South, some curses are even used as punctuation). Normal, sane adult French people would never say “oh la la” in any situation, but variations around “oh putain!”

One last thing. I think that there aren’t 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. And in that context, my special winner prize in being ridiculously pathetic is using “Ooh la la!”.




On a very unrelated not, Ask a Frenchman will change servers and hosting in a matter of days. As a reader you shouldn’t see a difference (except for the few stupid bugs -missing icons and such - that won’t go away, that should finally go away), but some comments may be lost in the process… Just so you know.


More Questions Answered:

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

  1. I love to contradict our dear Frenchman. With love. Meaning, in a general kind of way his explanations are right on spot, but they generalize a little too much. It happens that I say “oh la la” once in a while and I’m a 40 years old guy from France, so no, it isn’t only young kids and old polite people who say “Oh la la”.

    Here is a typical case when this expression burst out of my lips spontaneously: one of my daughters is just about to spill or has spilled some liquid from her cup or something. I use it to prevent an incoming accident or to deplore it. Note that it’s because there’s a young child in front of me that I say “oh la la” instead of “oh putain”. French aren’t embarrassed by curses… usually… Still around kids a few of us will refrain from using the full blown arsenal of dirty words that we enjoy so much. Unless they piss us off.

    Otherwise Frenchman is telling the truth: “oh la la” is used to depict bad stuff. Unless… they’re so bad they become awesome. Like a B-movie that’s so outrageous that it becomes amazing. Or someone so dumb that they embarrass themselves to new levels of comedy. Then suddenly “oh la la” is uttered with a hint of jubilation. Which is still far from the American “Ooooh la la” but maybe gives a clue about the misinterpretation!?

    Frenchman is right. Except when he is not

  2. I’m actually writing this from the home of my hostess in Paris. I come here every year. It is my second stay with her and 6th trip to France. Maybe it is a Parisian thing because I hear a variant of it all of the time, - oh la la la la la la. And it is usually an expression of a combination of surprise and mild frustration.

  3. Hello Frenchman,
    I am the House Poulette, married to a Frenchman and half French myself. I find that French people do in fact say “Oh la la.” It’s not so much a “Oh la la vous avez tache votre chemise cher ami,” but more of a “rohlala fait chier il pleut.” It’s all in the tone. You know what the French really don’t say, “sacre bleu!” or not anymore at least.
    Anyway, enjoying these posts-tres marrant indeed.
    A bientot!

    • Yes, but “roh la la” followed by a “fait chier” or similar cannot be completely considered as a “oh la la”, can it?

      As far as “Sacre bleu!” only pirates say it, and not the computer type, the one with a patch on his eye and a parrot on his shoulder.

  4. I hear it a lot on sport broadcasts on TV and there are usually more than two las in the phrase - of course one could argue that the broadcasters and/or their audience are rather childish

  5. I use it all the time, but I’m Swiss, so that’s why maybe.

    • Maybe that’s why.
      Seriously and without making fun (really), I’ve noticed that the Swiss have a bunch of expressions that are totally normal in Switzerland, but a bit tacky or old fashioned in France.

      • So true, That’s why I love to listen to speech of African politician. The French they speak is even more Old school.

  6. I think it’s something Pepe Le Pew (an authentic French skunk) might have said. That’s why Americans think it’s common. That, and…”Oh, but of course!”

  7. Great to see you are finally back.

  8. I think that in the U.S. we are (again) disadvantaged due to movies, tv and especially cartoons (Pepe LePew for example) that have misrepresented the French for a very long time with disturbing frequency (Veggie Tales, French Peas ‘will you join me in my annoying little song?’)

    That said, growing up here ‘Ooh la la’ was usually used to express that something was ‘sexy’ when it would be inappropriate to acknowledge that I understood the concept of ‘sexy’…like when I was 8 or 9 years old.

    And the other ‘French sounding’ thing people say in Central NY is ‘La tee dah!’ which is perjorative. And I recall my friend (who’s parents are both French) getting very annoyed with a kid at school for saying that it was ‘real French.’ But then again, in 10th grade that same kid got into a screaming fight with the French teacher because they disagreed on the pronunciation of a word.

    My personal rule: the native speaker is always right, and don’t use foreign slang.

    • I don’t think the US is at a disadvantage because of the media. Every mass media misrepresents other cultures and countries, and last time I checked, mass media was made by people.

      But yeah, you’re right, I think “ooh la la” is the worst when it’s supposed to be “sexy”. Personally, this is one of the unsexiest expression I like, and when an American girl said that to me with a sexy undertone in it, she then had zero chance of getting in my pants (unless she was super hot, but strangely super hot girls don’t resort to that type of things, I wonder why )

      Concerning “La tee dah” this is the first time I hear it so that should tell you something about its Frenchness.

      “the native speaker is always right, and don’t use foreign slang.”


      • This is the third post I’ve replied to already… I think I might have a problem.

        Regarding “La tee dah,” I’ve always heard is ‘La di da,’ which, while it sounds like it could have been some bastardized attempt at French, is actually from the anglophonic ‘lardy-dardy’ since at least the mid-nineteeth century.

        Source: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/la-di-da.html

        PS, that pic is from Goldfrapp’s Ooh La La. It was really popular when I was in middle school/high school (can’t really remember…I’m probably getting old ). I would like my extra kudos now, svp.

        • Extra kudos then.
          However, if this song was big when you were in middle/high school, you’re not getting old, Goldfrapp didn’t exist when I was in high school.

  9. Perhaps she was a friend attempting to relate [admittedly, failing to do so,] and instead of making light of the situation, you left her hanging.

  10. I’ve heard french men say “oh la la la la la la..” in french porn. LOL

  11. I’m french and I’m 19 and I often say “oh là là”! And I have friends who also say “oh là là”
    (I also say”ah là là” but i say “ah là là” for others situations.)And we don’t say “oh là là” in order to be polite. Sometimes I say:”oh là là qu’est-ce qu’il est c*n çui-là!”so I’m not polite!XD

    It’s not just old people or kids who say that!

    sorry for my bad english!

  12. I remember my yr7 french teacher telling us how french people actually say “ooh la la la la la la…”
    and we found it hilarious at the time.
    now almost 8 years later, if find that I only hear “oh la la” …it’s sort of used like “oh dear”
    also, I am curious about that picture, since no one has received any kudos yet

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