Oh Là Là: How to Use This Quintessential Phrase Like the French
Are you looking to add a little more glamor to your French conversations?
Want to express yourself in three emotion-packed syllables?
Need a Jacques-of-all-trades interjection that can give voice to your highest highs and lowest lows?
Welcome to Oh Là Là Land.
Nope, we’re not taking a trip to Southern California. Nor will we be detaching ourselves from reality—except for a few brief moments when we enter the Twilight Zone of how a quintessentially French expression is misused and mispronounced in English.
And right after that informative detour, we’ll be headed back to the francophone world—where we’ll learn about how French speakers really pronounce and use oh là là, and how you can best grasp the many meanings of this useful utterance.
Buckle up and let’s hit the linguistic road!
A Misunderstood Classic French Expression
Oh là là is one of the most classically French expressions. But, like many French words, it doesn’t always survive the journey into English usage unscathed.
The original meaning and pronunciation of loan words can easily get lost in translation. Some loan words fare better than others.
Consider the well-known yet often mangled French word, beaucoup (a lot). Even though its English and French meanings are basically the same, the word is sometimes rendered “boo koo” in popular American English usage.
Or think about niche, which again retains its original meaning—but has been mangled into “nitch” by American English speakers.
In the same way, oh là là has become the victim of its own Frenchness and fame.
It’s hard to say exactly when or how this expression went off the rails. In 1953, Cole Porter used the “ooh la la” variant in “C’est Magnifique,” written for a musical set in a Montmartre dance hall.
In 1957, teen pop idol Frankie Avalon released a song called “Ooh La La,” in which he uses the phrase to praise the excitement of kissing.
A string of other songs entitled “Ooh La La” has followed over the decades since—many of them reinforcing the misapprehension of the term.
In 2012, Britney Spears flirtatiously brought the English-language version of the expression to the Smurf Village, enticing an eligible blue denizen to overcome shyness and be her “Ooh La La.”
Madison Avenue didn’t help matters.
Back in the 1980s, American bluejeans brand Sasson appropriated the expression for a series of television commercials, stylizing it as “oo la la!” and embracing the suggestive connotation it now holds for many.
These television commercials, along with the company that spawned them, are long since a memory. Nonetheless, their effect persists.
The misinterpreted expression still gets used in English, where it now seems to be a permanent part of pop culture.
Many English speakers hear the expression; few hear it pronounced correctly. Even fewer know how to use it as it’s actually used by French speakers.
Despite its reputation as a racy, sexy expression, oh là là doesn’t have a risqué, lascivious or sexual connotation in French.
Oh là là should be used for strong emotions, like disappointment or delight, but not to express lust.
Oh Là Là: How to Use This Quintessential Phrase Like the French
Dîtes-le comme un vrai Français (Say It Like a True French Person)
So, now that we’ve burst the bubble of Sasson’s sassy “oola la,” the question remains—just how do you pronounce oh là là correctly?
Let’s start with the “oh.”
It’s pronounced like eau (water) in French. It’s generally not pronounced “ooh,” or even “eww,” as in, “Eww! What a disgusting way to pronounce oh là là!”
The là là part of the expression sounds somewhat similar to “la la” in English—although the tip of your tongue needs to stay close to your soft palate when you say “ah.”
The stress usually goes on the oh, with là là following—sometimes rapidly and rhythmically, sometimes lingering on the second là.
Hearing a native speaker pronounce the expression is truly the best way to grasp the proper pronunciation.
Forvo furnishes a small handful of “oh là là” audio clips.
ThoughtCo’s French Audio Guide has a recording of a female French speaker pronouncing it.
The Audio French Dictionary uses it in context, as part of a conversation on French art.
Variations on pronunciation
Remember when I said you’d rarely hear French speakers say anything close to “ooh, la la?”
French is a living language with millions of speakers, so there are bound to be a few pronunciation exceptions.
You might occasionally hear ouh là là in French, although you’ll find that the meaning isn’t suggestive.
Another variation is ah là là, which is sometimes translated as, “Oh, dear.” Again, this version doesn’t have a steamy connotation.
One of the more common variations of oh là là is simply an extension by repetition.
This is how it works:
Oh là là can morph into “Oh là là là là” or even “Oh là là là là là là,” if the speaker is particularly enthusiastic or worked up.
And speaking of variations, you’ll also notice different spellings. Not everyone writes the expression out the same way. Some skip the diacritical marks altogether.
Since oh là là is an interjection and not part of formal French speech, it’s not surprising that the spelling isn’t standardized. The dictionary on Linternaute (net surfer) site uses the diacritical marks; the online Collins French Dictionary leaves them off.
With the accents graves (grave accents) intact, oh là là might literally translate as “oh, there, there.”
Whether it’s dressed up with accent marks or left plain, you’ll now be able to recognize oh là là when you see and hear it.
Understanding oh là là in Context
With practice and repeated exposure, you’ll soon understand the multifaceted nuances of oh là là.
Listen to native French-speaking YouTubers explain the expression. Lullue from “How to French” dramatizes the expression in a series of masterfully silly skits.
Maïa from “Street French” also provides a good, in-depth explanation of how oh là là is and isn’t used by native speakers.
Get some practice with this essential expression by using audiovisual resources such as streaming French radio, cutting-edge podcasts for intermediate and advanced learners, French TV talk shows and classic French films. Pay particular attention to facial expressions, inflection and tone of voice, which all work together to convey the meaning of oh là là.
See, hear and understand how oh là là helps French speakers express emotions from surprise to dismay.
6 Ways to Properly Use oh là là
And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for! Here’s a half-dozen of the most French ways to use oh là là, with a few examples for each.
Feeling stunned by something you can’t explain? Like Vizzini in “The Princess Bride,” maybe life has handed you an inconceivable situation.
When you just can’t believe what’s happening, oh là là can express your incredulity.
Il n’est pas tombé? Oh là là! (He didn’t fall? Wow,
Il n’était mort qu’une plupart? Miracle Max l’a sauvé? Oh là là. (He was only mostly dead? Miracle Max saved him? Holy cow!)
L’homme avait six doigts sur un main? Oh là là! (The man had six fingers on one hand? Unbelievable!)
2. Surprized Delight
Some people hate surprises. But not all of them are bad.
Sometimes, when you least expect it, something truly wonderful happens. Let oh là là carry the dulcet tones of your delight.
Mireille, tu m’as acheté une tarte aux fruits? Oh là là! (Mireille, you bought me a fruit tart? Oh, my goodness!)
La tarte vient de ma pâtisserie préférée? Oh là là! (The tart is from my favorite pastry shop? Wow, that’s great!)
Et tu m’as aussi acheté un pain au chocolat? Oh là là là là là là! (You also bought me a pain au chocolat? Oh, my goodness gracious, I love my life!)
What comes up must eventually come down, though. When your mood takes a swing from delighted to irritated, oh là là will still be there for you.
Said in an aggravated tone, oh là là can be the perfect way to announce your annoyance.
Tu insistes à citer erronément “Princess Bride,” mon film préféré. Oh là là? (You insist on misquoting “The Princess Bride,” my favorite film. Are you kidding me?)
Oh là là! Vizzini n’avait jamais dit “peu plausible.” (Seriously? Vizzini never said “implausible.”)
Tout le monde sait qu’il a dit “inconcevable” dans ce film! Oh là là là là! (The whole world knows he said “inconceivable” in this film! How could you possibly not know that?)
Regret is when we’re annoyed with ourselves for what we’ve failed to do. In difficult times, when you’d love to do life over but realize that you can’t, oh là là will provide some emotional soulagement (relief).
Oh là là. J’aurais aimé ne jamais prêter ma copie du film “Princess Bride” à Wallace. (Oh, man. I wish I had never lent my copy of the film “The Princess Bride” to Wallace.)
Oh là là. J’avais espéré qu’il l’aurait aimé autant que moi. (Oh, dear. I’d hoped he’d have loved it as much as I do.)
J’étais si déçue par sa réaction que j’ai mangé une tarte aux fruits et un pain au chocolat de la même séance. Oh là là, j’ai mal au ventre! (I was so upset by his reaction that I ate a fruit tart and also a pain au chocolat in the same sitting. Ugh! What was I thinking? I have a stomach ache.)
Oh là là, la déception (disappointment).
When your false hopes deceive you, you know what être déçu (to be disappointed) truly means. And our sympathetic friend, oh là là, can help you express its heartfelt depths.
Oh là là, je ne pouvais pas trouver “Princess Bride” en disque Blu-Ray. (Dagnabbit, I couldn’t find “The Princess Bride” in Blu-Ray.)
Je ne vais pas voir Les Falaises de la folie en haute définition. Oh là là, je l’avais attendu avec impatience! (I’m not going to see the Cliffs of Insanity in high definition. Geez Louise, I’d been looking forward to that!)
Mes espoirs ont été déçus. Oh là là là là, que je suis tellement déçue! (My hopes have been dashed. Oh my goodness, I’m so disappointed!)
You’re a good listener, which is why your friends will occasionally tell you tales of woe.
Since you’re a sympathetic person, you’ll understand the hardships they’re going through. Show your solidarity with a caring, supportive oh là là.
Tu as échoué au cours de cuisine française après six mois d’études? Oh là là. (You failed your French cooking class after six months of study? How awful!)
Ton soufflé au fromage, qui était ton examen final, était tombé juste devant les yeux du professeur? Oh là là! (Your cheese soufflé, which was your final exam, fell right in front of your instructor’s eyes? That’s just terrible!)
Et maintenant, tu dois rendre ta toque ? Oh là là. (And now, you have to turn in your chef’s hat? I’m so sorry.)
I hope you enjoyed your visit to Oh Là Là Land!
Once you realize how well you can express yourself here, I think you’ll want to come back again and again.