All These Little French and American Words…



Welcome to the A to Z Challenge!

One interjection today for the letter O

  • this French interjection is used in the USA with a slightly different spelling and a different meaning, too



Au cours de mes premiers mois aux USA, chaque américain qui découvrait que je venais de France (et personne ne tardait à le découvrir rapidement, je me demande bien pourquoi…) me sortait des petites phrases amusantes du genre:

“C’est la vie.”


Ou bien encore le fameux “Ooh la la!” qui semble sonner particulièrement français aux américains.

Alors voilà la question du jour: vous, mes amis français et amies françaises, dites-vous vraiment, “ooh la la”?

Parce que moi je le dis, mais un peu différemment, pas orthographié exactement pareil et pas avec tout à fait le même sens.

Je dis “oh là là là là,” quand j’ai un problème, quand je vois un problème ou quand je fais une bêtise. Par exemple, si je suis coincée dans un embouteillage qui va me mettre en retard. Quand je rentre dans mon petit bureau et vois les piles de livres et de papiers non rangés. Ou encore quand je casse trois verres en vidant le lave-vaisselle (je suis parfois super maladroite). Enfin, vous voyez le genre.

Aux USA, “Ooh la la” est toujours orthographié avec deux O et sans accent sur les A. L’expression est toujours dite lentement, en allongeant la partie “Ooh.” Elle est utilisée pour exagérer l’effet de surprise ou d’étonnement. “Ooh la la” implique aussi quelque chose de nature sexuelle ou juste choquante ou risqué comme on dit ici.

Et il y a même des magasins de vêtements baptisés Ooh La La. Pour le je ne sais quoi, je crois.




In my first months in the USA, any American who found out (pretty quickly I must say. I really wonder why…) that I came from France would tell me funny things like:

“C’est la vie.”


Or still the infamous, “Ooh la la.”

This is one of these French expressions that always make smile. Do I say “Ooh la la”?

Yes. But not exactly like my fellow Americans.

First “Ooh la la” in French is spelled “Oh là là.”

Then the French don’t use it with the same notion of surprise and excitement. And there is never a connotation of risqué. The French spelling and pronunciation indicate less emphasis.

So, yes, I say, “Oh là là.” In fact I say “Oh là là là là.” Mostly if I’m in trouble or see trouble. For example, when I’m stuck in a traffic jam and know I’ll be late. Or when I enter my small den and take in the piles of books and unruly paperwork. Or still when I break three glasses when I empty my dishwasher (I can be very clumsy sometimes). You get the picture.

The difference between “Ooh la la” and “Oh là là” and even “Oh là là là là” can seem subtle, I agree. But this is what makes languages tricky and also fascinating.

The closest English translations for the French “Oh là là” would be, “Oh my, oh dear, oh no, oh boy, oh man.”

So, my American friends, do you say “Ooh la la?”

I took the picture of the clothing boutique above in California. The name “Ooh La La,” gives the store un je ne sais quoi, right?


Do you know of a French or English word starting with the letter O that has a different meaning whether it’s used in France or the USA?

Connaissez-vous un mot français ou anglais commençant par la lettre O qui a un sens différent selon qu’il soit utilisé en France ou aux Etats Unis?


See you tomorrow with the letter P.


  1. Funny article but no idea. I just thought of: Oh my God et Oh mon Dieu mais… sens identique 😉

  2. Such an iconic French phrase 🙂

    • It is such a common interjection in France that I was surprised to hear these simple words in different contexts and also said very differently in the USA. Love it, though. Thanks, Gulara, for another nice visit.

  3. Good to know – funny how much words and phrases can get altered across languages and cultures.

    • Thank you, Jen. Yes, it’s always good (and fun, too) to know about these little words that can be in our way when we are still learning a language, for example.

  4. It sounds like you use this for “Oy Vey” which is Yiddish, not an American expression but we hear it a lot.

    • Thank you, Dan, for teaching me a new expression. I don’t think I’ve heard it. Possibly more a New England or at least East Coast interjection. Thank you again for stopping by.

  5. Ooops! I’m sure I have used the phrase incorrectly many times. Perhaps we learned it as children from Pepe le Pou, the skunk in the Looney Tunes cartoon. Did you watch that program in France?

    • No, because my parents didn’t have TV when I was a kid. But someone mentionned it to me. And my kids like the name. Thank you, Claire, for visiting me. See you soon on your blog.

  6. Interesting…perhaps the English got this meaning because the French were always seen as more romantic 🙂

  7. I’m aware of the difference, but I’m too American to use yours. lol
    In a crisis of sorts, my French would be mute and I would turn to Oh no! or Oy vey! instead.
    Ooh la la is for expressing how impressed I am. Ooh la la, your French is the Frenchiest, Evelyne! 🙂

    • Oh la la la la! A French blogger friend who lives in England reminded me of another French expression: comme ci comme ça.
      In any case I enjoy doing this challenge and reading the comments. Thanks, Joey.

  8. Oy vay is probably one of those not entirely translatable Yiddish expressions. It means whatever you need it to me … in whatever context you put it. I think most expressions are rather like that. Context-dependent.

    When I lived in Israel, we had a lot of fun doing literal translations back and forth between Hebrew and English idioms. They were always funny and never made sense.

    • Dan commented today and taught me this Yiddish expression. Many expressions you’re right are unique to a place or a culture and are funny when translated. When the same ones go from one country to another it is sometimes amusing. Thank you for commenting, Marilyn.

  9. Here, when people realise I’m French, they tend to say ‘comme ci comme ça’ (something I never used in France!) and sacrebleu!

  10. Oh, oh… I was more of the Wow! persuasion than the Whoops! persuasion. 🙂 –Curt

  11. As for me, I tend to say “Oh dear.” I’m not nearly sophisticated enough in French to say “oh là là là là.” But I love to hear les Français say it, because it carries so much meaning the way y’all say it. Yes, I said “y’all.” Which is a word that I come by through heritage (Texan) but that une française may not be able to get away with (like “oh là là” for me) , n’est-ce pas ? And hey, at least the Americans who want to impress you with their “french” say “voilà” (or is it “waaaah-la!) instead of “viola” 😉

    • Thank you for this detailed comment. I like the American language a lot and I only wish to speak like one. And I especially like the way the language differs from one state to an other, and even within each state I notice some particularities. It’s like the food. I agree that some typical regional expressions should be left to the natives. I will never be able to say a few things with the appropriate tone. Y’all is one of them. Thanks again for supporting my little challenge.

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