French language dilemma: Is ‘coucou’ just baby talk or a perfectly normal greeting between adults?

It's a lot less formal than bonjour, for sure, but you will frequently hear coucou used as a greeting in France. But for some, it's the ultimate in baby talk and drives them wild with annoyance - we look at the reasons why.

French language dilemma: Is 'coucou' just baby talk or a perfectly normal greeting between adults?
Bonjour, mon bébé. Photo: Photo by Wesley Tingey on

If you're looking for an informal greeting for your friends you could use salut or ça va, or some people like to use coucou.

You'll hear people say it to babies or children a lot, a sort of French version of peekaboo or coochiecoo, but it's also very common to hear adults use it as an informal 'hiya' or 'hey' type greeting.

In fact, when asked the majority of readers of The Local said that they either do use it or often hear it being used and have no problem with it, but when people don't like it, it seems that they really, really dislike it.


Reader Benedicte Hamon exclaimed: “Je ne supporte pas! What a stupid expression!”

While otherwise mild-mannered Englishman in Paris – and The Local Europe's Editor – Ben McPartland is driven into a positive frenzy of irritation by the term.

He explained: “I just can't be that person who says coucou to another adult no matter how many French people say it to me.

“They might use it like “hi” but it sounds far too much like “peekaboo!” which is not acceptable to say to anyone over the age of one.


“I personally prefer to greet babies under the age of one with a Bonjour, comment allez vous? rather than coucou“.

Persuasively as he makes his case, however, it seems that he is in a minority on this one.

Yuri Mashtalir said: “I use it all the time. It's basically equivalent to salut for me.”

Cathy Hearn also approves, describing the term as mignon (sweet) while Camille adds that she uses it with “friends and lovers”.

Jeanne Darm pointed out: “It may not be acceptable but it's accepted. What about bye-bye in the US, then?”

Assunta Vincent said: “Obviously it is acceptable… only among friends, or people you are closed with, even colleagues. Don't go saying this to your chief, though!”

Its origin as a greeting is a little obscure but the word also means Cuckoo in French, so it's possible that it began as baby talk from people imitating a cuckoo clock to play peekaboo and amuse their babies.

French dictionary Larousse defines it as a way to “cheerfully attracts someone's attention when you show up by surprise”.




Member comments

  1. ‘Coucou’ was a very common greeting in Ireland in the 50s – the equivalent of ‘is there anybody home?’ But it disappeared some time in the 70s – I haven’t heard it for years

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Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.


Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty


Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 


And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  


Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.