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

A woman beckons a man over to her
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Pronounced voo-lay voo koo-shay ah-vehk mwa seu swahr, "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir," is a cliché of an English speaker's misunderstanding of French, thanks to the stereotype of the French as very romantic people. The meaning of this expression is, "Do you want to sleep (make love) with me tonight?" It is often one of the very few French phrases that English speakers know and actually use, without having studied the language and, for some, 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

The phrase, "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?" More likely, a smooth talker would use something else entirely, such as, "Viens voir mes estampes japonaises" (Come and see my Japanese etchings).

Despite the fact that this is a grammatically, though 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? 

In Literature

The phrase made its American debut without ce soir in John Dos Passos' novel, Three Soldiers (1921). In the scene, 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 serving 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." However, it was written with a grammatical error as, "Voulez-vous couchez [sic] avec moi ce soir?"

In Music

The phrase really came into the English vernacular thanks to music, in the form of the chorus in the 1975 disco hit, "Lady Marmalade," by Labelle. That song has since been sung by many other artists, most notably All Saints (1998) and, in 2001, by Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mýa, and Pink. The expression is also referenced in many other songs as well as movies and TV shows from the past 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 teachers reserve for such moments. 

The moral of the story is: Whether in France or anywhere else, just don't use this phrase. This is not how the French use (their approach is more nuanced) and native speakers will not react well to it. It is best to leave this phrase to its place in literature, music, and history, and employ other strategies in real life.