In America, it’s the stereotypical French expression for something exciting, enticing, or risqué. But in France, it has so many more meanings.
And it’s not even spelled “ooh la la”!
There are about three ways to spell the first sound, but they’re always followed by là là‘s (don’t forget the accent marks!):
1. Ah là là,
2. Oh là là,
3. Ouh là là
Oh là là is the most common, though I’m not sure whether the spellings have different connotations. I’ve heard that Ah là là can mean annoyance, but I’ve also heard that it means something good has happened (Oh France, must you be so ambiguous!).
Some people say it’s pronounced “OH là là” and not “OOH là là” (as we tend to say in America, but the French don’t drag out the “OOH”), but I was listening to a native French speaker give several examples of when to use Oh là là, and she kept switching between pronunciations of OH and OOH. Now, I can’t tell you why she did, because I don’t know myself! In two situations where she was expressing some kind of disappointment, she used OH once and OOH the other time!
Oh là là can mean anything from surprise, excitement, and disappointment, to admiration, concern, or sarcasm, or even when seeing something impressive. It all depends on the tone of the speaker and the context.
Oh là là, qu’elle est belle!––Wow, she’s beautiful!
Oh la la, le pauvre!––Oh God, the poor chap!
Oh là là ! Quelle bonne nouvelle!––Oh my, what good news!
Oh là là, c’est très grave!––Oh dear, this is very serious!
Always Go in Pairs, Unless You’re Alone!
In America, when we say Ooh la la, it stops at Ooh la la. But if you’ve ever been to France, sometimes you’ll hear a string of là‘s––as in, oh là là là là là là là là! Là‘s always come in pairs, and the odd là is usually a lower pitch than the even là.
There is an exception, though, and that’s when là is alone, as in Oh là or Ouh là. It might be used by adults to show surprise or to say “Careful!”
One of my favorite examples of Oh là là is from Brenda: “…our favorite incident was sitting in a café late one warm evening when one of the waiters, relaxing with a glass of wine after his shift, caught sight of a beautiful woman walking past on the street. He exclaimed, with great feeling, for all to hear: “Oh là là, Oh là là là là là là, qu’elle est belle!“
It All Depends on Where You Are
If you talk to some French people, some will tell you they use it all the time. Others still will say that they’ve never heard it used before in France, and that it’s just a silly American stereotype! I tried to figure out whether usage and pronunciation depended on which region of France you’re in, but I guess that’s something we can only assume.
So I hoped you’ve learned a bit about oh là là and how much it means to the French–or how little! Tell me your stories of oh là là!