Whether you have a good level of French or only know a few words, there is a French phrase that you have heard a thousand times: “voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” What does it mean? How is it pronounced? Where does it come from? But above all, is it really used by the French? This is what we will try to find out today.
What does “voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” mean?
Literally, “voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” is a question that asks someone to have intercourse with you. If you want to translate it into English, you can adopt a similar structure: “Would you like to sleep with me tonight?”
Despite its sexual connotation, the question has lost much of its original meaning to be used as a basic phrase when an English speaker is asked what phrases he knows in French. We can thus consider the expression as a meme before its time, even if since then, we have found it in many memes today.
How do you pronounce “voulez-vous coucher avec moi?”?
The pronunciation of “voulez-vous coucher avec moi” is quite close to the Americanized version of the expression: “voulay vous couchay aveck moy? The major difficulty is to pronounce the “é” sounds correct, and the “moi”. Its official phonetic writing is /vu.le.vu ku.ʃe a.vɛk mwa/.
Where does the expression “voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” come from?
Contrary to what one might think, the phrase, “voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” was not popularized by a Frenchman. It was the American writer John Dos Passos who first used the phrase in his book Three Soldiers, which came out over a century ago in September 1921. After that, many writers, poets, and artists of all kinds began to use the phrase.
The poet Edward Estlin Cummings uses it multiple times in his poem Little Ladies, released a year later in 1922. The phrase was also used a few decades later in the Tennessee Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire, released in 1947 in the United States. It is from there that the phrase is transformed into “voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir ?”.
During the 70s, it is the disco phenomenon that brings this phrase up to date. “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” became the refrain of the interplanetary hit Lady Marmalade by Patti LaBelle. In this song, the artist tells the story of a New Orleans prostitute who fully assumes her life choices.
After a few decades of silence, the phrase was revived when Christina Aguilera used one of the most famous French songs as the soundtrack to the movie Moulin Rouge. This American film tells the love story between a poet who has just arrived in Paris and a dancer at the Moulin Rouge (the most famous cabaret in France).
All of his works have greatly contributed to popularizing the expression internationally and making “voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” a French phrase known to all – even to those who do not speak a word of French.
How do you spell “voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?”?
The most famous French question in the world can be broken down into three parts:
- Voulez-vous : the second person plural is used as a mark of politeness and respect (vouvoiement) when addressing only one person. “Voulez-vous” (=Do you want) is used here to ask the person’s permission. The verb “vouloir” ends in -ez as is the case for all verbs conjugated in the second person plural in French.
- Coucher avec moi : “coucher avec quelqu’un” is a French expression used to mean to make love or have sexual intercourse. Here, it is used as a direct object complement, so the verb “coucher” remains logically in the infinitive. There is also an equivalent expression in English: “to sleep with someone”.
- Ce soir : The addition of “tonight” to the phrase denotes a sense of eagerness on the part of the person asking the question. Its English translation is again very literal: “tonight”.
So there is only one way to write the very famous expression, and that is: “voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?”.
The wrong ways to write “voulez-vous coucher avec moi?”?
As mentioned above, it was author John Dos Passos who introduced “voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” to the general public. But what you weren’t told is that from the beginning, this phrase was misspelled. In fact, in his book, the author wrote the phrase in an Americanized form: “voulay vous couchay aveck moy?“.
So we can see that this famous French question was built on spelling errors. Even today, written expression can be found in many ways. Here are some of the most common misspellings found on the web:
- Voulez vous coucher aveck moy
- Vu le vu cushe avec mua
- Vule vu coucher avec moi
- Vulevu coucher avec moi
- Vous les vous coucher avec moi
- Voulevou coucher avec moi
Is “voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” used in France?
It is unlikely that you will ever hear these words coming out of the mouth of a French person. And for good reason, “voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” is not something you can say to a person. Although the French have a reputation for being more direct and sultry than Americans, this type of question is still far too direct and rude.
On the one hand, it is unlikely that anyone would offer you something of this nature in this way. But it is even less likely that they would do it in that form. In that case, you would use the second person singular, not the plural. It would be more like, “Veux-tu coucher avec moi?”.
So, if you hear this question in France, it will undoubtedly be uttered in reference to the popularity of this phrase internationally rather than for its original meaning.
List of cultural works that helped popularize the phrase “voulez-vous coucher avec moi?”
This is not a story (Ceci n’est pas un conte) (1772) – Denis Diderot
Although it is John Dos Passos who is considered the author who popularized the expression, it would be Denis Diderot who would have immortalized the famous question for the first time in his philosophical tale, This is not a story. In this story, the phrase is pronounced by Mlle de La Chaux while addressing Dr. Le Camus, with whom she is secretly in love.
Three Soldiers (1921) – John Dos Passos
Almost 150 years later, John Dos Passos allowed the expression to cross the Atlantic when he used it in his novel Three Soldiers. He kept the expression in its French form, but Americanized its spelling, which gave us one of the most common misspellings of the expression still used today: “voulay vous couchay aveck moy?
Little Ladies (1922) – E.E. Cummings
A few months later, the American painter, poet, and writer Edward Estlin Cummings used the expression twice (this time spelled correctly) in his poem Little Ladies. In this poem, the poet alternates lines in French and English to tell the stories and romps of several prostitutes he met in Paris.
A Streetcar Named Desire (Un tramway nommé Désir) (1947) – Tennessee Williams
More than two decades after Cummings’ poem, it was playwright Tennessee Williams’ turn to bring the famous French question to light in his play A Streetcar Named Desire. In this play, the author nods to Cummings’ work while adding his own personal touch with the introduction of the “ce soir”: “voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir ?”. The expression will also be used in the film adaptation of the play, then directed by the famous American actor and director, Elia Kazan.
Voulez-vous coucher avec moi? (1973) – Radio Luna
In the 70s, we can notice how well the French expression was exported around the world, even outside the English-speaking countries. In fact, one of the biggest Italian radio stations, Radio Luna, launched a show in 1973 called “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi? Presented by Ilona Staller, better known by her stage name of Cicciolina, the show was an avant-garde platform that dealt with sexuality and women’s liberation in Western society.
Lady Marmalade (1974) – Patti LaBelle
Chances are, when you hear, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” you’ll think directly of the chorus of Patti LaBelle’s interplanetary hit, Lady Marmalade. It was largely that outrageous chorus and the song’s catchy beat that helped it reach #1 on the hits parade for nearly two years after its release. Again, the hit, which describes the lives of four dancers at the Moulin Rouge, deals with sexuality and the affirmation of women. Faced with this success, the mythical and sulfurous French question was even uttered by John Lennon, while he was doing a cover of the song on the piano during a performance in New York in 1975.
Cajun Invitation (1980) – David Frizzell & Shelly West
A few years later, the French expression was reused in a successful country song: Cajun Invitation. In this song, David Frizzell & Shelly West describe an evening in New Orleans where a man falls in love with a Cajun woman (people from Louisiana, descendants of the French Canadians) who speaks to him in French even though he doesn’t understand a word of it. As the evening progresses, she whispers several times in his ear, “voulez-vous coucher avec moi?”
Lady Marmalade (2002) – Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, Pink
In 2002, almost 30 years after the release of the original, singers Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, and Pink covered Patti LaBelle’s song, Lady Marmalade, for the soundtrack of the movie Moulin Rouge. The American film was a huge success when it was released and won almost all the awards that year, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and… Best Film Soundtrack. The French phrase is still a part of the world and English-speaking culture (The official video of the song has nearly 500 million views on YouTube!).
Since these works, “voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” has also been used many times as a running gag in many American sitcoms of the 21st century, as well as “C’est la vie“, “Oh là là” or “Omelette du fromage“.
As always, if you wish to improve your knowledge and mastery of the language of Molière, don’t hesitate to consult our other articles in which we explain the meaning and the origin of the most used French expressions in France and in the world.
Photo Credits @Gagliardi Photography
Translated into English by Sacha