French Word of the Day: Oh là là

If there are three words you need in France they are 'Oh là là' (nope not 'Ooh la la').

French Word of the Day: Oh là là
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Why do I need to know Oh là là?

Any caricature of the French involves someone saying Oh là là and the best thing about this cliché is that it's actually true.

Living in France you hear it at least once a day, probably more, and after a while you find yourself saying it almost as much.

So, what does it mean?

There are several meanings for Oh là là and to work out which one you're hearing you'll need to rely on context. 

One important thing to note is that unlike in English (when we say 'Ooh la la') when the French use this expression it is never intended to express that someone is sexually attractive. 

Here's a look at the different ways it is used. 

There is the 'traditional' method, most known to foreigners and often (though not exclusively) used by women, which is the prim and proper Oh là là. This is used to express admiration, almost in the same way we anglophone girls of a certain age use the phrase 'Oh my god'.
For example, you show someone your new ring and they say Oh là là c'est trop jolie! (Oh my god it's so pretty!). It is high, light and happy. This is a good Oh là là.

Then there is the bad Oh là là.  Perhaps predictably, the French often employ the bad Oh là là, used more in the sense 'Oh my god that's freaking annoying'. . 

For example: a car burns through a pedestrian crossing nearly knocking you over or just doesn't stop to let you cross the road generally or the cashier at the supermarket tells you je ferme ma caisse, moi (I'm closing my till) even though the queues are huge.

This Oh là là (or even Ho là là) is low, baritone and disapproving, often muttered under your breath.
Then there is the pièce de la résistance (which, incidentally, is not something the French say. Go figure.) – the Oh là là là là là là. Yes, that's right. Six “là”s – no more, no less – in quick succession. This is bad. This is very bad.  Not to be bandied around lightly, this is reserved for those head-in-hands, all hope is lost kind of moments which, again perhaps unsurprisingly, happen in Paris more often than you think.
This is used when the French miss a crucial goal in the (soccer/rugby/other ball sport) or when you get halfway home from CDG and realize the cab driver doesn't take carte blue.
How do I use it?

Oh là là! Quel choc cela me fait! – Oh dear! What a shock it gave me.

Oh là là, ça me saoûle! – Oh my god that's freaking annoying.

Oh là là ! J'ai oublié mon livre! > Oh no, I forgot my book!


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Member comments

  1. For a whlie it was Oh la la la la la. But also it was for a while Oh la! These are fashions like we have in English.

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French Expression of the Day: Robin des bois

He's the legendary Englishman who is surprisingly relevant to French political discourse.

French Expression of the Day: Robin des bois

Why do I need to know Robin des bois?

Because you might be wondering why the French reference this English outlaw during protest movements 

What does it mean?

Robin des bois roughly pronounced roe-bahn day bwah – is the French version of “Robin Hood” – the legendary outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. 

Robin Hood is part of English folklore, with the first references to him occurring sometime during the 13th or 14th century. He did not become Robin des bois for some time – as the legend did not spread to the majority of French people until at least the 18th or 19th century. 

Robin des bois most likely made his big entrance on the French stage in the 19th century when the novel Ivanhoe (1819), which tells tales of medieval England, was translated into French. 

The fabled outlaw was welcomed by the French, particularly romantic writers and thinkers of the time who saw him as a symbol of the fight against the aristocracy. 

But the French had their own versions of Robin Hood before the English legend made its way to l’Hexagone – like the “Louis Mandrin” who supposedly rebelled against corrupt tax collectors during the Ancien Regime. 

Over the years, the French – particularly those on the political left – have evoked “Robin des bois” during strikes and protests, and it’s relatively common to see protest movements or direct action groups name themselves after Robin Hood.

The English outlaw also had his own French television series between 1963 and 1966 – though this time he was called “Thierry La Fronde” and he lived in France during the Hundred Years’ War.

Use it like this

Nous devons nous attaquer aux actions de Robin des Bois afin d’aider la classe ouvrière à payer leurs factures d’énergie, a déclaré le syndicat dans un communiqué de presse. – We must take action like Robin Hood to help the working class pay for their energy bills, the union said in a flyer. 

Le restaurateur était un véritable Robin des Bois – il avait tendance à surfacturer les tables des riches et à sous-facturer celles de la classe populaire. – The restaurant owner was a real Robin Hood – he had a tendency of overcharging tables of rich people and under-charging those of poor folks.