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As a French man living abroad, I often hear non-French people saying "Oh la la !" (along with an imitation of a kind of posh attitude) after someone talked about something that is typical of France or French people. I have been told that this expression is supposed to be typical of what French people say, which according to my experience is not really the case (this blog article is going in that direction as well).

Have there been specific elements of French movies, books or any exported culture trivia that made English-speaking people think that "oh la la" is something that French people actually say all the time, or that would explain why this phrase became a stereotype of the French language ?

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  • I wasn't aware that was considered a typical French expression, but a waiter in Liège (?) saying "oh la la, monsieur" in response to something my father did may very well be the first French phrase I consciously remember hearing. It wouldn't surprise me if foreigners shock speakers of French more frequently than natives, with the potential for increased utterances of "oh la la". But I mean that as in surprise, not as in some kind of posh attitude.
    – Frenzie
    Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 13:46
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    Related: french.stackexchange.com/questions/4513/…. But I would sooner look into English-language movies or books to find an explanation, if any. Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 13:48
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    Anecdotal evidence: football (soccer) highlights of goals/etc. with french commentators often include occurences of "oh la la" and variations of it ("Oh la la quel but !", "Oh la la la la ce geste que vient de faire Messi…"). Non-french speakers very often jokingly comment on such uses of "oh la la" (you can find many examples on the soccer sub of Reddit).
    – Fatalize
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 14:32
  • Someone is deleting my posts.This is not really a French language question at all....
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 18:39
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    @BrunoPérel Probably, the English language and usage forum. I am not by the way criticizing you. :)
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 14:18

2 Answers 2

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French people do say oh là là, hou là là and houlà quite often but it doesn't have the connotations found in English. Well, it can but rarely.

Here are examples of its use in French:

Il est déjà sept heures. Hou là là, je vais rater mon train !

Houlala le train, il est en train de partir !

Oh là là, elle a repris du gateau !

Hou là là, il a dû se faire mal en tombant !

A reason explaining the popularity and oriented meaning of this expression in English might be Fifi D'Orsay, actress and singer born in Montreal who made all her career in the US and who made hoo-la-la her trademark according to several sources.

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  • Interesting. Yes, French people do say "ouh la la" but not with this connotation, that's what I wanted to say but didn't phrase it properly. Thanks for the reference, that's definitely a good lead Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 21:40
  • I think it is funny that in movies and in the US - people say “Ooh la la” when the expression is really “Oh la la”. I hear it all the time by French people in France, so do not think it is rare.
    – user15862
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 9:44
  • @kjstinson I don't believe there is a strong difference between oh la la and hou la la. The tone used when saying it is far more important than which word is used to make clear what is intended to say.
    – jlliagre
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 13:14
  • Missing circonflexe: il a dû
    – Stef
    Commented Mar 18 at 19:09
  • @Step Corrigé, merci!
    – jlliagre
    Commented Mar 18 at 19:55
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I got the idea from Agatha Christie's books featuring a character of belgian origin by the name Hercule Poirot who often inserted French words into his otherwise English dialogue, such as 'alors', 'monsieur/madame/madmoseille' and also 'Oh, la, la':

"My dear Poirot! What on earth is the good of that, now that we know about the coco?" "Oh, là là! That miserable coco!" cried Poirot flippantly. ~Agatha Christie - The Mysterious Affair at Styles

While I realized that Poirot with his enormous moustache and mannerisms was a caricature of a Frenchman, I still remember this phase as a french expression.

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    Uh, no. Poirot was a caricature of a Belgian, not a Frenchman.
    – Drew
    Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 23:06
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    @Drew thing is, he was seen as french by the engish characters in the various books. One even responds to poirot's 'i am Belgian, not French' with 'Belgian, French... what's the difference" Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 2:10
  • @Morrigan Would you define Sean Connery as an Englishman?
    – jlliagre
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 2:32
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    @jlliagre That guy is so awesome that he becomes whatever he plays. guys, relax, poirot was intended to be a parody of frenchman/belgians by the author, it's not an insult towards them... and it was a joke :-) Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 6:22
  • You might be confusing Hercule Poirot with Achille Aubergine ;-)
    – jlliagre
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 8:28

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