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


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!

Update: OK, after a few comments vehemently telling me that no, normal (as in “not 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 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.





About 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.

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

  • Tatiacha

    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 Post author

      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”.

    • Adam

      As I understand it, we can largely thank/blame the roles that the actress Fifi D’Orsay was cast in for this American invention.

      • David Billa Post author

        Mmm… Interesting…
        I’ll have to dig a bit into that when I find the time. Thanks.

  • Marie-Noëlle

    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 …

  • Antoine

    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

    • Anna

      I’ve heard “oh là, là !” used in all those contexts, too. Maybe you’ve been away from France too long, David? (That’s a joke. No need to reply!)

  • Erin Kathleen

    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.

  • Amy

    ‘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.’

    What you mean that thing that French people do with English words? Oh, yeah — right: I gotcha.

    • Anna

      I hate when French people throw in English words into their conversations when they have a perfectly good words in their own language. It sounds silly and I’m not impressed.

  • Deanna

    Hi! I just discovered your blog/website and find it really entertaining and informative. But I have to comment that the ending of this particular post was a bit harsh, in my opinion. As a french-loving anglophone, I’ve devoted time and effort to learning french language and culture and have basically made france my adoptive home. 🙂 I agree that “ooh la la” is used more as an american expression to imitate (or maybe even mock) the french, and I agree that that particular usage is pathetic. But other people, beginners who have just embarked on the journey of french-learning, might not be aware and might still be under the impression that “ooh la la” is a “real” French expression; this post is informative, but delivered in a tone that could sound a bit injurious, particularly to beginners who have no ill intentions. just my opinion!

    • David Billa Post author

      Deanna, thanks for the kinds words.
      Concerning the ending of this post, yes, I can be a bit harsh at times, even a bit extreme. That’s part of my personality, and that’s also part of the “Frenchman” persona (originally, I used to write the Ask a Frenchman posts on a separate blog, under the name “Frenchman” that also was a caricature of the arrogant Frenchman, now I write under my real name, so I’m less of a persona and more myself, but I’m not perfect and some of the bad traits of the characters really are mine. 🙂

      Now, don’t get me wrong, the issue for me is not as much the “imitating” part, but the “trying to look cool” part.

  • Laura

    Yeah, I came here cos freakin Bradley Cooper said it in new movie Burnt.
    Context: French Chef: You let rats loose in my kitchen and called the inspector.
    American Chef speaking French: “Oh la la c’est terrible”
    Me: HA WHAT?!
    I thought it was something Pepe Le Pew might say but never in the real world. Like if I suddenly hit out with “bonnie” (I’m Scottish) or my English cousin said “Oh gosh golly!”
    But no one else was laughing so I sat there hysterically in the cinema and decided I must be wrong, leading me here.

    But then, your point about imitation to look cool… This was about an American attempting French and arrogant enough to think he was good at it. Maybe a little jab?
    It was an American movie though, so I bet not.

    • David Billa Post author

      I haven’t seen the movie, so in the end, I don’t know, but “oh la la, c’est terrible” is something a French person could say, it all depends on how it’s delivered.

      Remember, the “oh la la” that’s not acceptable is actually “ooh la la” and meaning “it’s cool” or worse than everything “it’s sexy”

  • JeleSais

    They say it, yes. And the “o” does not sound like “oo” in French, by the way! C’est emerdant comme vous l’ecrivez, tien!

  • Josh

    Very informative. Thanks. But honestly, I think you may have been judging your “friend” a little harshly. She might of just been joking around. She didn’t embarrass herself, you’re just being kinda of a jerk. 🙂

  • Poppey Doyle

    And yet, you did nothing to help Americans communicate with their French friends.
    How about a few examples of what would pass for Oh laa in various contexts. Then instead of criticizing you, they might come back here often. Context is always a difficult thing for people who are not native speakers.

    • David Billa Post author

      Well, first of all, this blog is not about teaching French, never was, never will.
      Also, if you read closely, I think I do give some context.
      Finally, and indeed, I may not have been explicit about it (maybe because it seems obvious to me, ok, maybe it’s not for everyone), that’s not the kind of expression you can learn to master through reading a blog post, but by becoming fluent in the language.
      If you use it without already being fluent, you will misuse it.

        • David Billa Post author

          There’s no problem with “le chien a chié.” Why does this bother you?

          (also, make sure you post your comments in English, you tend to write a lot in French, I won’t publish those)

          • Anna

            It doesn’t bother me; I said it. But my French and Swiss friends have all told me that’s not really acceptable. Maybe I just know some exceptional native French speakers…or perhaps you’re exceptional. Yes, you’re right. I need to stick to English. I’m just used to writing on French speaking forums.

          • David Billa Post author

            What do they mean by “acceptable”?
            You won’t use it in any context, it’s obviously very informal language, but it’s grammatically correct and as such acceptable.

          • Anna

            Socially acceptable, i.e. non-offensive for general conversation. Did you mean “context”?

          • David Billa Post author

            I thought you were alluding to the alliteration or something.
            Well, no “chier” is not socially acceptable for general conversation.
            The word is only acceptable with very close friends and family. It’s beyond informal, it is pretty rude in most contexts.

  • Babette

    I first heard it when I was 9 years old, after watching Leslie Caron in ‘GiGi’. Men looked at her on the movie screen, whistled, and then said, “Oo-La-La”!

    Because of her great sex appeal and beauty…another Brigit Bardot, in other words

  • Frew W.

    A dash-cam video of the November 2015 terrorists attack in Paris recorded the French limousine driver uttering the words “Ooh La La”, as he came upon the scene of death and destruction. This was obviously not done to impress on you the fact that he knew the term, so you shouldn’t say French people don’t use it.

    • David Billa Post author

      Don’t confuse “Ooh la la” with “Oh la la!” (or even “Oh! La la!”) not the same thing. Didn’t I detail the difference in the post or in the comments?
      The second one, that is actually used, is one of shock and is a negative thing, nothing to do with the US cliché.

      • Frew W.

        Your question was “Do French people really use the expression “Ooh La La”? What I heard the French limousine driver say was “Ooh La La”.
        “Ooh la la” and “Oh la la!” do not confuse me in the slightest. They do not sound the same in any regard. So the answer to your question is yes, French people really do use the expression “Ooh La La”.

        • David Billa Post author

          Are you sure you’ve read the whole thing?
          Because here, you’re basically saying that the guy said “Ooh la la” with a tone of faux French fashion designer stumbling upon a sexy dress when he discovered a carnage?

    • VMaestas

      Sounds familiar. I remember being on the street in Paris one day years ago when a police van with sirens blaring passed by with a swat team hanging on to the sides. A young man standing next to me said, “Oh, la la! C’est grave..,” Later, I read that there had been an assassination in a phone booth somewhere.

  • Annie V

    Languages evolve, very often by adopting words or expressions from other languages. And, yes, often mangling said expressions in the process. The expression “ooh la la” is part of the English language now, whether you like it or not, even though it’s not pronounced or used the way a French person might use it. Check the Oxford Dictionary. It would be extremely snobby to deem anyone who uses an expression that originated in another language as “pathetic”. Hmm, does that mean that every French person who uses Franglais like “le brushing” and “le fashion victim” is pathetic? (Both express a different meaning than they do in English.) For those of us who are a bit more tolerant the phenomena is interesting, amusing, and even endearing.

    • David Billa Post author

      Thanks for telling me how languages evolve (sorry, there is some sarcasm in the previous statement, it’s not obvious at first), and no I’m not saying that it’s pathetic that languages borrow from other languages, that’s the natural way languages evolve and are alive.
      What is pathetic is when people (mis)use a foreign expression as an attempt to sound more foreign, more cool, more special or something along these lines. I thought that was pretty clear. Maybe not. Or maybe you overreacted.

      • Husain Lokhandwala

        Why is trying to fit in or be liked pathetic ? It’s human nature. Everyone wants to be “cool” in some way and be liked by others.

  • Carol

    David you seem like a right miserable old git.
    Maybe you should stop obsessing over how other people act and try to be a bit nicer yourself.
    Your written English is not perfect but nobody is being sarky about that.

    • David Billa Post author

      Thanks Carol. Always a pleasure to have readers who can appreciate sarcasm and irony…

      And as far as my written English is concerned, anyone whose second language is as good as mine is welcome to criticize it as much as they want. (I mean it)

      • Anna

        Anglophones don’t appreciate sarcasm or irony as much as the French. Just so you know. I get in trouble all the time with sweet, ironic statements. People tend to take them at face value. By the way, I am quite impressed with your English. My French isn’t too bad, either. I’ll happily correct you if you like.

        • David Billa Post author

          Mmm… You know that “Anglophones” is not a monolithic entity, right?
          And yes, while most Americans suck at irony, the Brits are world champions, beating the French by far. I can’t speak for the other Anglophones, I don’t know their cultures well enough.

          Remember, the only common trait of Anglophones is that they speak English (and very often not even the same English), but your cultures and outlooks on things are extremely different from country to country.

          Thanks for my English, but I have nothing to be proud of, I’ve probably spoken (and definitely read) more English than French over the past 20 years. And if I do still make mistakes, it’s mostly because I rarely proofread what I wrote (I should, I know). 🙂

          • Anna

            Oh, really? Anglophones are not a monolithic entity? Thanks for enlightening me! What I should have said is anglophones don’t tend to appreciate French-style sarcasm and irony, which tends to be very blatant, almost mean-spirited. I love English humor. By the way, I didn’t say we Americans suck at irony. The Americans I know excel at it, but it’s subtle, like the British. Hmm… I don’t agree that the only thing in common amongst native Anglophones is the language. There are differences to be sure, but there are plenty of similiarities. 🙂

          • David Billa Post author

            No, you should have said “Americans don’t appreciate sarcasm or irony as much as the French.”
            And American irony or sarcasm is anything but subtle, nothing like the British.

          • Anna

            I know what I wanted to say and I said it. You don’t have to agree, but it’s kind of silly to argue with someone about what she should have said. The world according to David…very interesting.

          • David Billa Post author

            Funny you’re responding this in a discussion about sarcasm and irony.

  • B

    I understood what you meant about what was pathetic, and I hear you completely. I’m reading up on this phrase because I work in editing and in our publication someone has written “ooh-lah-lah” in the exact context you’re disdainful of. I’m trying to decide what to do about it. Obviously in American usage it’s technically “correct,” but it irritates me to give it a pass.

      • Munck

        I’am French, and I say Oh là là when needed! (which is not necessarily where foreigners would put it and not necessarily on the same tone)
        – as to: “Oh, putain !” let me say that in my ears, it is only for bad educated people 🙁

        • David Billa Post author

          Well, I think I’m somewhat educated (I don’t want to throw my resume in your face, so you’ll have to trust me with that, let’s say I’m “Bac + beaucoup trop”) and I say “putain” all the time.
          Now, I don’t know where you’re from in France (your IP says Denmark 😉 ), but yes, there are regions where it’s not acceptable, and some where it’s mere punctuation. I come from the latter.

      • Anna

        Sorry, it’s already part of the language. Check out the Oxford dictionary. It’s kind of like “déjà-vu” (but you have to say “déjà VOO”) and “je ne sais quoi”. I never use those terms in English, as they sound dumb to me, but they are occasionally used. How about “croissant”? I can never bring myself to pronounce it the English way. It sounds awful! Thanks for this thread. It’s been great fun!

        • David Billa Post author

          That it’s a part of the English language is none of my concern (well, it is, but it’s not), what I take issue with is people who use it to sound French, who think it’s a cool thing to say in France.
          I pretty much never use “déjà vu” in English.
          I have no issue with croissant. It’s not an expression, but a word naming an object, every language borrows words from every other language all the time. I even say it with an English pronunciation when I speak English, the same way I say “hamburger” the way French people say it when I speak French.

          • Anna

            Yes, I understand your point. I was just pointing out that there are legitimate uses of the expression in English, even if we don’t like the usage (the one in question in this thread, for example) in a certain context.

  • Anna

    My French friends, young, old, and in-between say “oh là, là ! ” quite often. They are neither stuck up nor prudes.

  • Asha

    The funny thing is one time I was in that language course and there was this french guy with us , one day I bought a cup of coffee from the cafeteria and was going back to the class when he faced me and was like “Oh la la” I just laughed a bit just to pass him and go away but it really really made me embarrassed, I felt so shy to hear it ..well due to our different cultures I never figured out why he said it ? Whats the negative thing in buying coffee ? Anyways he really made me embarrassed with that so I hope no french person use it suddenly with a foreigner cuz its confusing XD
    Thanx for the article btw.

    • David Billa Post author

      Er.. Wait… Tell me if I understood right.
      You’re basically saying that French people shouldn’t French expressions in front of foreigners in case, said foreigners misunderstanding French get confused??? Am I getting this right?

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