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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.

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?” My lack of reaction must have seriously disappointed her.


Ooh La La
Quiz: Can you tell why I chose this picture to illustrate this article?


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 an “Oh” and not an “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 surprise 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 surprised myself or even a bit amused, 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. “Regular” adult French people won’t say “oh la la” except very very rarely. They’ll prefer variations around “Oh Putain!

Update: OK, after a few comments vehemently telling me that no, normal (as in “not a prude and not stuck-up) people also say “Oh la la!“, yes, there are situations I had overlooked when “Oh la la!” can be used. Mostly in situations of shock, as some sort of equivalent of “Oh my God!“, pretty much always in negative circumstances. Still, I kinda think it’s people who want to avoid cursing who tend to use it more.

Also, don’t confuse it with “Oh la!!!” which kinda means “What the Fuck!” Sort of…

One final thing. I don’t think that there are many things sadder 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.




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