The French phrase oh là là isn't so much an expression as an interjection. It can indicate surprise, disappointment, commiseration, distress, or annoyance. The phrase is used to express any moderately strong reaction to something that was just said or done, for example:
- Oh là là ! J'ai oublié mon portefeuille! > Oh no, I forgot my wallet!
You can strengthen the phrase by adding more là's, but you need to do so in pairs.
Using and Misusing "Oh là là"
A native French speaker might use the expression as follows. Suppose this person is passing through Charles de Gaulle Airport, which is near Paris. Imagine that the man is looking at souvenirs and knocks over a small Eiffel Tower made of glass, causing it to shatter. He might exclaim: Oh là là là là là là! (Note how he inserted four extra là's-two pairs of two-to heighten his expression of annoyance or mortification.)
Another example might be a French native speaker playing poker. Suppose the card player draws an ace to give her four aces, generally a winning hand. She might use the phrase as follows:
- Oh là là là là ! (a beat) là là!
Note that in English, this expression is often used to talk about something risqué. It tends to be misspelled in these occurrences and mispronounced as "ooh la la." It is also usually said fairly slowly and with the first word comically elongated. That is not the way to use the expression correctly in French.
Pronouncing and Defining "Oh là là"
Click the link for o la la to bring up a sound file that will let you hear how to correctly pronounce the phrase. Click the link a couple of times, listen carefully, and then repeat the saying until you are able to pronounce it correctly.
Though the phrase does, indeed, translate as "Oh dear," "Oh my," or "Oh no," its literal translation is "Oh there, there." That would make little sense in English, hence the generally accepted, and more emotional, translations.
Using "Oh là là" in Conversation
According to The Local, there are many ways to correctly use this versatile interjection:
"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.
The Stockholm-based website devoted to European languages and culture, including French, warns that you should not use the phrase for particularly negative situations, such as a car barreling through a pedestrian crossing nearly knocking you over, a biker ringing his bell at you, or someone cutting in front of you in line at the grocery store. There are other French phrases that are more appropriate for those kinds of situations.
But the expressive phrase is really a useful one to employ if you are visiting France:
"(There are) moments when 'Oh là là là là là là' is really the only way you can express your frustration/anger/hanger (hunger + anger). It is satisfying."
If you live in Paris long enough, says the website, it will become an automatic part of your vocabulary, adding that at this the point, you'll know you're really turning Parisian.