If you ask the average person what they can say in French, there’s a good chance they’ll tell you “Oh là là”. It’s a phrase that’s even more iconic and well-known than Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir ?. Unlike that phrase, though, French people actually do say Oh là là – a lot!
It’s one of those French stereotypes that’s actually true! Just about every French person, regardless of their age, social status, background, geographic location, education, level of formality, etc., uses this expression.
The thing is, though, while the rest of the world thinks of Oh là là as meaning “Oh, that’s sexy!” or “Oh, that’s impressive”, for the French, it’s more than that. Oh là là can signify that something is surprising, good, impressive, bad, sad, or even a bit of a disaster.
Let’s get up close and personal with Oh là là, which might just be the French’s favorite phrase.
What does Oh là là mean, and where does it come from?
Essentially, oh là là is the equivalent of “Oh my God” or “Wow” in English. It’s an exclamation or interjection that can have a number of different meanings, depending entirely on the context.
That’s an easy enough answer, although it can be hard to precisely categorize every single scenario in which you’d say Oh là là. The harder thing to know, though, is where the phrase originated.
One source claims that the Oh comes from Latin…but I have a hard time believing that no one else in human history ever uttered a surprised/appreciative/frightened/etc. “Oh!” before the Ancient Romans.
The là là is the more confusing part, though. There are several meanings of là, including “there”. But the one that seems to match best with the meaning of Oh là là is its role as an emphasizing word.
For example, something you hope you’ll never have to say to your hairdresser: «Qu’est-ce que tu m’as fait là ? » (“What the heck did you do to me?”)
Interestingly, là can also be used as a word to convey or control emotion. Là can express everything from “There, there” to “That’s enough!”, to “Watch out!” You can see some examples of this here (go to number 10 on the list). Although, in my experience, this is rare and a bit old-fashioned, it seems like a solid tie to the still very current Oh là là.
Bon, bref (Okay, to sum up), it seems like Oh là là might just be made up of filler words that have an association with emphasis and/or emotion.
How to use Oh là là like a French person
Oh là là is an interjection with many different meanings. The good news is, there’s no verb to conjugate and nothing to agree with it.
You usually use it on its own or at the beginning of a sentence. If necessary, you can also use it on its own, followed by a sentence that explains what’s going on, how you feel, etc.
The important thing is to understand the context. Let’s look at some examples.
1. Oh là là can mean negative surprise and/or sympathy
Julie : J’étais si fière de moi – je suis arrivée tôt pour le rendez-vous. Et puis je me suis rendu compte que j’ai oublié mon portable. (I was so proud of myself – I was early for our meeting. And then I realized that I forgot my mobile phone.)
Clara : Oh là là, et qu’est-ce que tu as fait ? (Oh no, so what did you do?)
2. Oh là là can express positive surprise or appreciation
Thibault: Oh là là, c’est trop beau ! (Wow, it’s so beautiful !)
3. Oh là là can express anger
Denise : Oh là là, tu commences à me gonfler ! (Oh my God, you’re starting to annoy me!)
Or…just about anything. Remember that, like “Oh my God” or “Wow,” you can use Oh là là to express a reaction to nearly any situation. You can visit this site and this site to see some additional example sentences with Oh là là’s different meanings.
When not to use Oh là là (maybe)
That said, this article notes that a site dedicated to European languages advises readers not to use Oh là là in “particularly negative” situations, like a biker ringing their bell at you, or someone cutting in line. But I have to disagree. I have heard French people use this expression to express many negative emotions, like shock, anger, sorrow, and regret.
The fact that a website claims that this isn’t so is par for the course. In fact, like any commonly-used expression with a flexible connotation, most people have an opinion about when and when not to use Oh là là – very much including French people, themselves.
For example, in this video, a native French vlogger concludes that Oh là là is mostly used in a negative way. That really surprised me. As an outsider who’s observed the French in their natural habitat for more than a decade, I don’t have any ingrained ties to the expression and can say I’ve honestly seen it used in just about every situation where someone could be surprised, impressed, or nervous, in good and bad ways. You can see that in this video, where a number of different French speakers talk about why they say Oh là là
Here’s another exception you’ll often hear: Some French-learning websites and videos (including the first one I linked to in the last paragraph) will tell you that, contrary to the way it’s used in non-French-speaking cultures, oh là là doesn’t suggest anything being sexy for a French person. But I’ve absolutely seen men and women (most often men) look at a woman they find attractive or sexy and say Oh là là. There’s even a man in the second video who uses this as an example.
That said, while I’ve heard Oh là là transformed into a suggestive adjective in English — for example: “Her dress was a little…oh là là,” it’s never used as an adjective in French, just an exclamation. If you heard a French person express the same idea, using Oh là là, it would be like this : “Oh là là, tu as vu sa robe?.”
What’s the deal with Oh là là là là là là ?
Speaking of exceptions, numerous French resources will tell you that French people add additional là’s (usually for a total of six) to Oh là là when they’re really mad.
I’ve definitely heard that in this context – for example, Oh là là là là là là ! On sera coincé dans cet embouteillage toute la journée! (Argh, we’ll be stuck in this traffic jam all day !)
But I’ve also heard my French husband utter an Oh là là là là là là …. when he’s watching, say, a football match and either the team he’s rooting for or the one he’s against is about to make a goal.
This isn’t an anomaly. We’ll revisit Oh followed by multiple là’s a little later on in this article, but for now, trust me on this – Oh là là là là là là is often used by French people when they’re experiencing a very strong emotion: anger, frustration, excitement, suspense, delight….
Variations of Oh là là
Oh là là may be the French’s favorite expression, but there are also some variations. Let’s look at a few.:
Ouh là là
This variant is usually used to show that a person is really surprised/upset/etc. That’s because they’re insisting on drawing out the “Oh” and transforming the clipped vowel sound into a longer, deeper ouh (which is actually how most of the rest of the world pronounces the Oh in the standard Oh là là).
Yes, despite how we pronounce it in the non-French-speaking world, for the French, the Oh in Oh là là is usually pronounced with a short, clipped sound.
Listen carefully to the first person who speaks in the video I linked to earlier (I’ll put it here again so that you don’t have to think, Je dois chercher dans l’article pour retrouver ce lien? Oh là là, elle exagère, Alysa! (I have to search through the whole article to find the link? Wow, Alysa is really pushing it!). You’ll notice that she doesn’t pronounce the Oh like “Ooo”/“Ouh”, but simply like the letter “O”.
Most of the other people in the video pronounce it this way, as well. But at the 40-second mark, a woman says Ouh là là, perhaps because she’s suggesting a really surprised or exasperated reaction.
That said, I rarely see Ouh là là in things like articles, letters, nonfiction, etc. It’s most commonly used in informal, online language or in dialogues in fiction books. Most of the time, though, the expression is written Oh là là, regardless of how it’s pronounced.
Speaking of which, when it comes to pronouncing the Oh in Oh là là, don’t worry about it too much. I say this from personal experience. I learned this expression much earlier than when I started learning French, so I still tend to say it the way I grew up hearing it, Ouh là là. No one here in France has ever seemed surprised, offended, etc.
And after all, in most cases when you say Oh là là, it probably could be pronounced either way, since you’re expressing surprise or a strong emotion. So, don’t let pronunciation hold you back from using it – you’ll still sound more French if you inject the occasional Oh là là or Ouh là là into your speech.
Ooh là là
This is an alternate spelling of Ouh là là. Double/multiple o’s in French are pronounced like they would be in English, and are often used in books, comic strips, and online to suggest an exaggerated pronunciation (as you can see in the title of this adorable YouTube video).But this particular version of the phrase also seems to be influenced by how Oh là là is written and pronounced by many non-French speakers around the world.
Essentially, this means “Watch out” or “Wait a second”. Example: Ouh là, fais attention sur l’escalier, Norbert a failli tomber. (Whoa, watch out on the staircase. Norbert almost fell.)
Still not sure about Oh là là? Let’s learn from some GIFS!
Hopefully now you know all about Oh là là. But if you want a visual representation of its many subtle differences in meanings, please check out this amazing collection of Oh là là GIFS, featuring everyone from (dubbed) international actors, to current French pop culture darlings like TV personality Christina Cordula.
You may think GIFs are just silly, but hold it right there – these contain some really interesting lessons. For example, the caption of the GIF featuring Cordula (second column, fifth GIF down) reads “Ouah là là là …” This is interesting for a few reasons. For one thing, you’ve probably noticed that an “a” has been added to Ouh. That’s because Cordula is adored for her strong Brazilian accent and exaggerated pronunciation of French words. She really would add an extra syllable to Ouh – well done, GIF captioner!
The second thing you might have noticed is that there’s a third là. This is to suggest that Cordula is saying a lot of là’s after Oh (or, in this particular case, Ouah). As I mentioned before, this is often associated with expressing anger or frustration. But Cordula clearly isn’t angry in the GIF. She looks (pleasantly) surprised. This is yet another example of how there are no hard and fast rules for Oh là là and its variants.
Many French people say Oh là là là là là là when they’re exasperated, others (like my husband) when they’re experiencing a sense of suspense, others might use it to show extreme surprise – and most people have probably done all three. You could argue that, as a foreign speaker, Cordula could be using Oh là là là incorrectly, but clearly, people understand her enough to make her reaction into a GIF.
You might also have noticed that Cordula is doing this weird (well, depending on your native culture) sort of hand gesture, a bit like she’s fanning herself. Many French people also do this to show they’re impressed, or, sometimes, excited about something. Personally, I can’t get the knack of it, but Cordula has picked it up brilliantly (unless they also do this in Brazil?).
Another thing you’ve probably noticed from this GIF collection is that not all of them say Oh là là (or some variant). You can also find other expressions, like Oh putain, Quoi, and even Oh my God (This is truly the French equivalent to Oh là là, since it’s probably the most common phrase that comes to mind when French people want to imitate Anglophones).
These alternative expressions show you how versatile Oh là là truly is. It’s a gamut of emotions, in three simple words. Oh là là — no wonder it’s such a famous phrase!