Posted by / Category Cultural Differences /

After the Norman Conquest of 1066, Anglo Norman (old French) became the language of the elite in the UK. I’d like to think that this is the reason why, when I moved to London, I was hearing so many French expressions. Mind you, some words were supposed to be French, but I had never used them. Sacrebleu, for instance is a stereotypical and very old fashioned French curse, which is rarely used by we French these days. In fact, I didn’t understand why my British colleagues were saying it all the time. Maybe they were trying to impress me. I will never know. But I digress. There is a French expression that I love, it is having a certain ‘Je ne sais quoi’. According to the dictionary, ‘having a certain je ne sais quoi’ means ‘having a pleasing quality that cannot be exactly named or described. What’s not to like? Now we are talking, right…

A certain Je Ne Sais Quoi

Let’s say, for instance, ‘although she’s not conventionally attractive, she has a certain je ne sais quoi that makes her popular with the boys’. Now, can you hear the sexual innuendo here? I certainly can.

Let’s face it, whenever French words are used this side of the Channel, there is a sexual innuendo. As some of you like numbers, I will take the plunge and make an assessment: when a French word (or a French expression) is used, in 80% of the cases there is a sexual connotation. Shame nobody had told me before, it would have saved me some embarrassing quid pro quo.

For instance, I used to always be late to catch the bus the go to school. I remember saying to my daughter, on the street:

‘ Oh la la! We are going to miss the bus, let’s hurry up!’ In French, Oh la la! is more an interjection than an expression. It can indicate surprise, disappointment, commiseration, distress, or, in my case, annoyance because we were late again. There was no connotation of sexiness or impropriety (or whatever else) at all, this much I know (try running after a bus with a shirt full of baby’s puke and you will understand where I am coming from).

Little did I know that, over here, ‘Ooh la la’ conveys a sexual message just because it is French. I remember noticing the funny looks of well-to-do lawyers (I was living next to a magistrates court), and I couldn’t understand what was going on. Honestly.

Now I get it: even when covered in barf, I has having a certain je-ne-sais-quoi because of my French accent, and the fact that I had said ‘Ooh la la!’. What can I say? Life is seriously unfair.

On the bright side, when my British colleagues try to speak French, I can usually get my revenge. Recently, the big boss told me that he wanted ‘jouir pendant ses vacances’ when he meant that he wanted to enjoy his holidays. I am not sure that he understood why I burst off laughing. Just don’t say it.

On this note, I leave you with this video…





  • Steve Humphreys™

    You’re absolutely right M. If you show me your Savoir Faire, I will let you see my Sang-Froid 🙂

  • Ronald

    Here’s my take!
    Bear in mind people perceive as much as they can despite reality and also think they are humorous!
    Some guessed background.
    French was and remains the top foreign language taught in schools now that Latin is too elitist and Ancient Greek is less popular in the poshest schools and anyone regarded as academic would have studied some French as an option up to the age of 13 and even to 15/16. This of course is no guarantee of actual ability even at the top of their game. And few visited France for a total duration of more than 30 days in their lives! (I have visited I would guess under 12 days)

    I would guess this is a 60s starlet thing (Brigitte Bardot is the classic) over here reinforced by advertising etc. France was so different.
    Think lots of sun vs smog especially in London.
    Notice Brits only associate Breton with stripes and not people. Note GB and London was particularly in parts unfriendly to darker skinned (and even Irish) people.

    The 60s was when French caricatures on TV was an English person imitating a French accent with a few French words (bonjour, monsieur – eg watch the Saint as shown currently on ITV4 from time to time). This was later reinforced by comedy especially Allo Allo. The main Frenchman on UK TV back in the 70s was of course Sacha Distel with the occasional Charles Aznavour song (She).
    The phrase a (impersonated) French woman would always say is Ooh la la (not as in the Kool and the Gang song)
    No Sex Please we’re British was a success in theatreland.

    Then of course when the only French women/girls in the UK pop charts were Vanessa Paradis – Joe le Taxi and Alizée – Moi Lolita . This tells you something.
    However even today, clichés exist and Hollywood’s Françaises play up to it too and they are pretty smart on the whole.

    In recent years I’ve only heard a few French (male) rugby commentators on radio and TV say oh la la and they ain’t sexy in my opinion.

    Bear in mind any actress who is remembered for her sweaters in that Scandi Noir drama tells you more about a country’s males.

    Don’t get me started on incorrect usage of French phrases in English (I’m not French just fussy or a pedant).

  • Valorie Hubbard


    • Thank you! I had a tough Monday and you’ve made it a lot better x