Ask Tom Tuesdays: Do the French really say oooh la la?

Written by Diane on. Posted in on life in France

do the french say ooh la la

Hello! Tom’s here today with his latest installment of his series on my blog called Ask Tom Tuesdays. We’re taking a closer look at “ooh la la.” Do the French actually say this phrase that’s made its way into English? Tom has the answers.

GO!

Do the French say ooh la la?

There’s something about French guys… and you just want to hear what they have to say! I’m often asked what my husband thinks about American (and French) culture, food, the people and more. Curious minds want to know what French guys think about all kinds of things, so today, my husband, Tom, is answering your question about the very French saying OOOH LA LA.

Please note: Tom’s mother tongue is French and I don’t edit his posts in an effort to keep them as authentic as possible. He’s also not a blogger, so if you enjoy his series, please let us know in the comments and of course submit any questions you have for him here on my contact page!

Question: Do the French say oooh la la? The saying has made its way into English and I was wondering if the French actually say it or if it’s something we’ve taken from from movies and TV?

Tom’s answer:

No! That’s the most important thing to remember here! In general, French people don’t say oooh la la! And I know it’s a widely spread misconception about French expressions.

It reminds me of our river cruise last year — let me tell you about it. So our cruise manager on the first passenger meeting following our arrival on the ship proudly told us in an informational culture meeting (note that pretty much all the passengers except me were native English speakers) that when seeing something nice, fancy, beautiful, French people would say a big « oooh la la » (and he really emphasized on the « ooooh ». At the end of his speech he even made us repeat that saying « so when you’re at a little market and you see something nice, what are you going to say » and everyone to repeated after him like a choir that « oooh la la ». I obviously didn’t repeat what sounded just so wrong to my French native speaker’s ears! And to be honest, I really wanted to tell the cruise manager about that misconception, but he looked so proud of himself when he said it that I didn’t want to embarrass him, so I just felt a little sorry for him that he was spreading misinformation…

So if you don’t want to embarrass yourself when speaking French or just trying to use a French expression, please forget forever that « oooh la la »!

We do have something in French that resembles it, but it’s actually pronounced oh la la (not ooooh) with the “oh” part sounding like the letter O or the French word “au.”

The use and meaning of that expression, oh la la, is totally different than the oooooh la la we’d hear from the cruise director. We use oh la la in a more negative way, usually to express surprise, disappointment, annoyance…

For example, I need to go to the préfecture to get a document, I’m in a hurry so I’d like to be quick, I arrive there and it’s packed! I then could say « oh la la c’est blindé (blindé de monde)! » as « oh no it’s so packed » to express both my surprise and disappointment.

In a more familiar way, we could say « oh merde » or even « oh putain ». See we’re very far from that « oooooh la la ». If I could think about an interjection in French that has that meaning (when seeing something really nice) I guess the closest would be « wa-oh » like the English WOW (or just even pronounced « waaa »).

(Diane’s note: I’ve heard my father-in-law say oh la la when he opened the microwave and realized he burned the chocolate he was trying to melt. I’ve heard people say it in response to opening up a cabinet or closet and seeing a huge mess that falls out in front of them. Also, when people have dropped stuff and made a scene. I’m just emphasizing Tom’s point that it’s usually a response to something negative.)

And here’s something funny for you. I happen to be writing this post while watching a show on TV in the background, in which there’s a French lady discovering a nice house on a real estate program, and of course saying « oh la la » in a positive way! It should help me remember that we can never generalize things! (note that even if here it’s used in a positive way, she does pronounce « oh la la » and not « ooooooooh la la », the way it’s come to be pronounced in English)

To recap, I’d say that ooh la la isn’t used by French people, so if you want to be showy about your knowledge of French, better try to use something else. Remember that we do use oh la la, but almost always with a negative connotation, although a few people (mostly older ones) can use it for positive meaning. But it’s definitely not trendy or cool to use it and doesn’t mean the thing you’re talking about is trendy or cool either!

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ask tom tuesdays ooh la la

As always, thank you Tom for taking the time to write here. 🙂

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Comments (26)

  • Marianne

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    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I recently sent “oh la la” in a text message to my mom. I think in English we use it more to be like “oh, so fancy!!” whereas in French they use it like “oh shit look at that.” Tom described it very well
    Marianne recently posted…Medieval GhentMy Profile

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    • Marianne

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      p.s. I think it probably has something to do with the American stereotype of French people being fancy. Another example would be “chef.” In France, “chef” means “boss” rather than, the head cook, as it would mean in the U.S. I think the French words that are appropriated into the U.S. are ones that we think mean something high class
      Marianne recently posted…Medieval GhentMy Profile

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      • AdA

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        In French, we also use ‘chef’ for the head cook, I guess it’ an abbreviation from chef-cuisinier.
        What annoys me, in the same area, is the unpronounceable ‘maître d’ ‘ and every American thinking it’s a perfect French word….

        Reply

        • Diane

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          hhaha yes the MATER-D and let’s not forget or-derves. Love that one! Tom had no clue what I was saying when I pronounced hors-d’oeuvre the American way.

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          • Léone

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            I *still* have a half-second of hesitation before ordering my “entree” (…nah, it’s not an apetizer).

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    • Diane

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      That’s the perfect way to explain the American usage, Marianne. That ooooooh la la means, “OH, that’s so fancy!” That stereotype is alive and well. Sometimes people ask where I live and I just say I’m originally from NJ to avoid saying I live in France because people automatically assume it’s SO FANCY like the stereotypes lead people to believe. And sure, sometimes it’s fancy (just like the US) but day-to-day life is pretty normal and not ooooh la la worthy. Thanks for checking out the post!

      Reply

    • Léone

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      I’d say “oh la la” indicates shock. Generally in a bad way (“oh la la, on a une demi-heure de retard!”, sometimes in a good way “oh lala, c’est magifique!’, “ils t’ont embauchée? Oh la la, c’est génial!”

      Reply

      • Tom

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        Very nicely put! great way to explain it! Thanks Léone 😉

        Reply

  • MaryZ

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    Thank you for clarifying the oh la la saying. I worked at a French consulate and I did hear them say that the way you described, in a negative way.

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  • annie vanderven

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    Of course we say oh la la, but it is the tone employed which makes all the difference.
    Also it is not blinde but bonde for a lot of people in a space. .

    sorry my computer does not put accents on the letters.

    I do enjoy your blog .

    A. v.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Hi Annie, thanks for your comment. You’re saying that the French say oh la la and not the Americanized oooooh la la, right? The way Americans say it can be best described by Marianne’s comment below, to mean “OH WOW that’s fancy!” But with either, the tone matters. Never heard a French person say oooooh la la though, good or bad. Always pronounced oh like Tom said.
      I will let Tom reply about blindé and bondé. I think they mean more or less the same thing although I only hear people say blindé to mean it was busy/crowded. I hear that quite often.

      Glad you enjoyed the post!

      Reply

    • AdA

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      No, you can say ‘blindé’, it’s just more familiar than ‘bondé’.

      Reply

    • Léone

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      You can totally use blindé as a colloquial way to say “paked”. Just be aware it belongs to the informal register.

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    • Tom

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      Hi Annie! Thanks for your comment and sorry for any confusion! I have to agree with you on the “bondé/blindé” thing, I mean you’re technically right, if we all spoke french according to the rules of the académie française we in fact shouldn’t use that term to mean a crowded place. However, in modern french (and probably especially among the population under 50) we do use “blindé” in that case, even if, once again, the appropriate word is bondé, which by the way sounds more formal too. Thanks again for picking up on that 🙂

      Reply

  • Cathy Henton

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    Good post. My neighbour says oh la! Just the one la if you tell her something very interesting or mildy shocking. It might be the price of something – ‘did you know it cost me….’ ‘C’est vrai? Oh la!’

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Yup, love the oh la too! Comes in handy!

      Reply

  • Léone

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    My mother used to pronounce “hou la la!”, and even “hou la la la laaaa!”… but it was a sign of *extreme* annoyance. As in, “I’m on my last nerve and I’m going to lose it real bad, hou la la la laaaa!”

    Reply

  • Alan

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    I’ve actually been surprised how often we have heard « oooh la la », (that the term has to been something from the 60s movies). But we have frequently heard it said, usually by a female speaker, to Sami the MinPin. We alway thought as an expression that the speaker thought Sami was cute or when Sami was behaving in an affectionate way.

    Thank Tom for taking the time to answer questions!
    Alan recently posted…Carcassonne – Nine Photos From Walking Around The NeighborhoodMy Profile

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  • Phoebe @ Lou Messugo

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    Hi Diane, my Facebook newsfeed was dominated by you today with French Gril in Seattle sharing this post and a guest post on hugging (that caught my eye as it was what you linked up to #AAF) on the Good Life France. Well done! I totally agree with Tom about oh la la vs oooh la la. I also think oh la la is used to express encouragement to young kids such as when they present you with a drawing you say “oh la la c’est magnifique, bravo!” Certainly that happens a lot in my bilingual world. I use “oh la” a lot too (and blindé not bondé!!) You’re spot on with the “fancy” thing. That also applies to British English and British users.
    Phoebe @ Lou Messugo recently posted…Silent Sunday – 15 March 2015My Profile

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  • Marine

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    Hi Diane,

    I always say “ohlala” (very fast) and people already told me here that it is sooo French 😉

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    • Diane

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      Hahha, yes Americans love anything French!

      Reply

  • Angie

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    Hi Diane! I just found your blog recently and have really enjoyed reading through it. I teach French to fifth graders here in the US and I always try to undo some of the stereotypes and misconceptions they have already formed. The ‘oh la la’ vs ‘ooooooo la la’ thing is something that always comes up, usually early in the school year. I’m glad to have a resource to back me up, so thanks!

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Hi Angie, so happy you’re enjoying the blog and glad I could help out!

      Reply

  • Candace

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    I enjoyed this article. My husband and I just returned from visiting Paris. On a side trip to the town of Versaille I was taking a photo of him in a little out of the way spot. An older french woman came around the corner and accidentally photo bombed us and out came, “oh, la la”. That was the only time I heard the expression while we were in France and it was used just as you stated, to express her surprise as she tried to get out of the way. I loved having that “french moment.”

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Awww, haha. Hope the pic turned out OK. You’ll always have a story to tell! Hope you had a great trip!

      Reply

  • Steve

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    I play pétanque with several natives on Fridays, and I hear it many times a night. It takes the form of “Oh! La la la la la la la…” until the ball stops rolling.

    Reply

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