Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir is probably one of the most famous sentences in French, but is it really that French? Popularized by American writers and singers, that pretty straightforward invitation is everything but correct. Not from a grammatical point of view, but from a social one!
In this post, we’ll explain to you the origins of the question voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?, and go into why there are few chances you’ll ever have an appropriate opportunity to use it.
The meaning of Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir
If you hear the sentence voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir, chances are high that it is pronounced with a strong accent, by a non-French speaker. Probably by someone who knows very little French, if no French at all. Indeed, this sentence may be one of the biggest clichés that associates French people with romance.
Literally, voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir means would you like to sleep with me tonight or do you want to sleep with me tonight. Quite an odd sentence to say to someone, isn’t it?
If we look at it in detail, voulez-vous uses an inversion construction with the verb vouloir to ask a question. Voulez-vous means do you want, and is used to ask for someone’s approval to do something. The second-person plural form of you in French, vous, is used either to address several persons, or to show politeness and courtesy to a single person, as one would assume is the case in the sentence voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir.
The other main component of the sentence is the verb coucher followed by the French preposition avec, meaning with. On its own, the verb coucher means to go to bed. When used with the preposition with, however, coucher avec someone is similar to the English to sleep with someone, which means make love to someone.
And well, ce soir simply means this evening or tonight.
Why voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir is an odd sentence
Even though it’s grammatically correct, the sentence voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir is a pretty weird sentence to say to any French speaker. It would never occur to any French person to utter this sentence to anyone they somehow hoped to have sex with!
Not only is it very direct, which would already be both disturbing and upsetting for the person being asked, but also the use of vous makes it even weirder. This polite French you form implies a certain distance between the speakers that’s common when addressing elders or authority figures, or between service workers and clients. Clearly, this makes the question even more inappropriate for such an intimate proposition. If you’re that close, you should definitely already be using the familiar French you form with each other: tu.
It’s by understanding the context and origin of voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir that things make more sense (while remaining a no-no today!). Indeed, it appears that this sentence, dating back to the 1920s, stems from a context of brothels and prostitution. Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir? is an offer of service proposed to potential clients!
The origins of the expression Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir
The sentence voulez-vous coucher avec moi first made its way through American novels and songs. The first known occurrence was in the novel “Three Soldiers,” written in 1921 by the American author John Dos Passos. The novel recounts the experience of three American soldiers in France during the First World War, which, among other things, saw them frequent French prostitutes. That’s why at some point, one of the characters claims that the only French he knows is this sentence! In the novel, it is deliberately misspelled voulay vous couchay aveck mwah to get a full sense of the American accent.
The next year, the sentence voulez-vous coucher avec moi was used multiple times by the American poet Edward Estlin Cummings in the poem “La Guerre, IV,” also known as “Little Ladies.” This poem tells the stories of several prostitutes he met in Paris.
In 1947, the expression also appears in Tennessee Williams’s famous play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” where ce soir was added for the first time. It was also written with a grammatical error, conjugating coucher rather than leaving it in the infinitive: voulez-vous couchez avec moi.
But it’s music that made this sentence a cultural reference. It started in 1975, with Labelle releasing their fabulous disco hit “Lady Marmalade”. In the chorus, the chanteuses are throwing down their groovy lyrics: “Gitchi gitchi ya-ya da da… Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?”
Once again, this catchy song was about the story of a prostitute, this time in New Orleans. The woman in question, Creole Lady Marmalade, is the one saying the famous line, as the culmination of the scene they lay out clearly in the lyrics:
He met Marmalade down in old New Orleans
Struttin’ her stuff on the streets, do it babe
She said, “Hello, hey Joe”
“You wanna give it a go?”
Very popular at the time it was released (and ever since), “Lady Marmalade” became a hit once again in 2001, with the tribute released by pop powerhouses Christina Aguilera, P!nk, Lil’ Kim, and Mya for the movie “Moulin Rouge.”
Real life usages of Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir
The fact that this sentence was originally said by prostitutes, or perhaps to them, explains the usage of the vous in voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir: it’s a provider-client relationship. Outside of this context, one would rather use the informal second-person singular pronoun, tu, and say: veux-tu coucher avec moi ce soir?
Yet, even with the use of tu, that sentence remains extremely formal, considering what we are talking about. It would be more natural to remove the inversion, and say: tu veux coucher avec moi ce soir?
But, the real question is: why would someone even say something like this? Would you like to sleep with me tonight? is usually something we don’t ask in such straightforward terms! If you truly want to show your affection to someone, why not stick with some of these French terms of endearment that are much more appropriate and may ultimately lead to the same outcome.
Through all this, we hope you got it: there is no good context to use Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir in any seriousness.
Not only it is not a good pick-up line, but it also doesn’t even show that you know some French. It’s quite the opposite. Also, you can be sure that every French person has been served this sentence at least once, by a foreigner. In the best-case scenario, they’ll only raise an eyebrow as an answer.
To conclude, please let this expression remain where it belongs: sung along with a groovy “Gitchi gitchi ya-ya da da!”