How the French really use ‘voilà’

It is one of the most widely-used French words, but not always in the way that English-speakers expect.

A waiter in Paris carries food to the table. Many voilà's are likely to be exchanged.
A waiter in Paris carries food to the table. Many voilà's are likely to be exchanged. (Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP)

Even people with an extremely limited grasp of the French language will have heard the word voilà

In English-speaking countries, we tend to assume that voilà is used to emphasise some spectacular action. We might imagine a waiter lifting the lid of a silver platter, announcing “Voilà“, to unveil an exquisite dish. Or perhaps we imagine a bedazzled, curly-moustached magician uttering this word as he pulls a live rabbit from a hat. 

But in France, although it can be used in this sense, it’s far more commonplace and has a variety of far more mundane uses. 

Once you listen for it, you will hear it everywhere; at work, in shops, restaurants, cafes, schools, you name it – whether as a curt and compact ‘vwa-lah’ or a long drawn-out ‘vwaaaa-lah’. 

Literal meaning 

Voilà is essentially a combination of two words: voir (to see/look) and (there).

So literally speaking, voilà is an instruction. When you use it, you are telling people to ‘look there’.

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So you can use voilà to draw attention to something that you can physically see. 

Voilà, le canal St-Martin – Look, the St Martin canal 

Voilà, mon ordinateur – Look, there’s my computer 

But there are plenty of other, slightly less literal, uses of voilà.

Voilà in customer service 

Voilà votre monnaie (here is your change) is perhaps the most common usage of voilà, frequently heard in shops, bakeries, restaurants etc. 

The word can in fact be used in most contexts, when giving something to someone.

Voilà, le pull que tu m’as prêté la semaine dernière – Here, take the pullover that you lent me last week 

Voilà to replace C’est 

Voilà can be used more or less interchangeably with c’est (it is). This is far from the most common usage of the word, but it is one to listen out for. 

Voilà où il habite maintenant – This is where he lives now

Voilà ce que nous devons faire – This is what we need to do

Voilà pourquoi je suis parti – This is why I left

Voilà as a conclusion 

Voilà, often in combination with bon, can be used as a verbal marker to signify that you are ending a conversation, or have said everything that you need to say. 

Bon voilà – So, there you go… 

On va commencer avec ma présentation, suivi d’une visite du jardin et puis le déjeuner, voilà – We will start with my presentation, followed by a visit to the garden and then lunch. That is all. 

C’est pour cela que je souhaite habiter en France. Voilà – In conclusion, that is why I want to live in France. 

READ ALSO ‘Sacre bleu!’ Do the French really say that?

An expected result

Voilà can also be used when an expected action, task or realisation is completed. For example, you could voilà if you are waiting in the cold for a train to arrive ages and it finally does. This is where you would stretch out the final syllables, perhaps to express relief: ‘vwaaa-lah’. 

Parents often use voilà when talking to their children as a kind of ‘I told you so’. 

Non, arrête, c’est trop lourd pour toi, tu vas le faire tomber *OBJECT CRASHES*… et voilà ! – No, stop, it is too heavy for you, you will drop it *OBJECT CRASHES*… There you go! 

Et… quoi…

You can pretty much always add et (and) before the word voilà like so: et voilà

Equally, when using voilà at the end of a sentence, particularly in an informal setting, you may hear people say voilà quoi

In both cases, the meaning of the word does not actually change, you’re just adding extra emphasis with the et or the quoi.


And if you want to know how to pronounce it, check out France’s 2021 Eurovision entry. It’s entitled Voilà and the chorus goes; 

Voilà, voilà, voilà, voilà qui je suis
Me voilà même si mise à nue j’ai peur, oui
Me voilà dans le bruit et dans le silence

Here, here, here, here’s who I am
Here I am even scared and naked, yes
Here I am in the noise and in the silence

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‘Sac iconique’: France unveils French shopping terms to replace English versions

A commission that seeks to act as a guardian of the French language has published a string of recommendations for translations of shopping and style terms, to replace widely-used English ones.

'Sac iconique': France unveils French shopping terms to replace English versions

Perhaps inspired by this month’s Paris Fashion Week, the non-binding recommendations from the Commission for Enrichment of the French Language were published in Wednesday’s Official Journal.

Instead of an “it-bag” — defined as “a handbag in the latest fashion or that stands for a brand” — ministries and businesses are encouraged to write “sac iconique“.

An “it-boy” or “it-girl” can now safely be described as an “icone de la mode” and a “must-have” transforms into an “incontournable“, while “try before you buy” becomes “essayer-acheter”.

There are also more baffling business terms that may be unfamiliar to many native English speakers, like “digital native vertical brand” (“marque integree nee en ligne“).

Set up in 2015, the Commission for Enrichment of the French Language aims to “provide French vocabulary appropriate to the need for communication that is clear and accessible to the greatest number of people”, it said in the introduction to its 2021 annual report.

Led by a member of the Academie Francaise — founded in 1635 under King Louis XIII to guard “pure” French — the Commission says it “recalls to a broad audience the importance of having and using French vocabulary so as to keep our language functional”.

Given the dominance of English in global business and technology, its terms are the most frequently targeted for translation into the language of Moliere.

“These days there’s no invention, innovation or discovery that doesn’t have its corresponding term, increasingly often in English,” the Commission said in its report.

“The flow of new concepts that must be defined and named in French is therefore continuous.”

The report cited fields including hydrogen power, the Covid-19 pandemic and malicious digital activities as recent areas to which  its 20-odd expert groups have turned their attention.