Oh la la ! Voulez-Vous Coucher Avec Moi Ce Soir ?

This may be a 'Lady Marmalade' lyric, but it's older than the hills

Is she enticing him to 'coucher' with her.
Is she enticing him to 'coucher' with her. Paul Bradbury/Caiaimage/Getty Images

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir ?, pronounced voo lay voo koo shay ah vehk mwa seu swahr, is a cliche of the English speaker's misunderstanding of French, thanks to the image of the French as very romantic people and the meaning of this expression: Do you want to sleep / make love love with me tonight." It is often one of the very few phrases that English speakers know in French and actually use, without having studied the language and, most important, without knowing what it means.

The French expression Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir is interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, it is very direct and it's hard to imagine that it's an effective way to introduce yourself romantically to a native French speaker.

In Real Life, It's Odd

In addition, Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir is odd for its extreme formality. In the type of situation where a person would ask this question, tutoiement at the very least would be the order of the day: Veux-tu coucher avec moi ce soir ?

But inversion is also very formal; a savvy dragueur ("flirt") would use an informal structure, such as Tu as envie de coucher avec moi ce soir ? or, more likely, something else entirely, such as Viens voir mes estampes japonaises (Come and see my Japanese etchings).

For these reasons, despite the fact that this is a grammatically, if not socially, correct French expression, it's really only English speakers who use it, sometimes because they simply don't know any better.

But why do they say it at all? Here's a little of the history.

In Literature, It Was a Soldier's Line

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ? made its American debut without ce soir in John Dos Passos' novel Three Soldiers (1921) when one of the characters jokes that the only French he knows is "Voulay vous couchay aveck mwah?" E.

E. Cummings was the first to use those five words correctly spelled, in his poem La Guerre, IV, known as "little ladies more" (1922). It's said that many an American soldier in France around the time of WWII used the shorter form as well, without a full understanding of its meaning or bad form. The full expression didn't appear until 1947 in Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire," though it was written Voulez-vous couchez [sic] avec moi ce soir?

In Music, It Won Wide Acclaim

But Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir really came into the English vernacular thanks to music, as the chorus in the 1975 disco hit "Lady Marmalade" sung by the famed American female R&B group Labelle. That song has since been sung by many other artists, notably All Saints (1998) and in a collaboration of Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mýa, and Pink (2001). The expression is also referenced in many other songs as well as movies and TV shows from the last few decades.

The expression entered the general consciousness of Americans, and over the years both men and women have erroneously assumed that Voulez-vous coucher avec moi would be a good pickup line, only to be greeted with the kind of bemused smile reserved for a teacher considering how to correct a student...or worse.

This is not how the French operate (their approach is much more elegant) and they will not react well to the phrase, so the lesson here is: When in France (or anywhere else), just don't use it. Relegate it to literature, music, and history.

Additional Resources

Tu versus vous
Asking questions in French
Romantic French
Most common French phrases
French expressions used in English

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