A small smile, a shrug, and the phrase c’est la vie. You may have experienced this exact scene, or maybe heard it in a song. But what does c’est la vie mean?
In this post, we’ll explore the literal and figurative meanings of this popular French phrase, and we’ll explain the various scenarios where it might be used. Finally, we’ll dive into some French synonyms for c’est la vie. Now let’s get started!
C’est la vie in English: Literal meaning
C’est la vie, meaning literally that’s life in English, is a well-known French phrase. C’est means it is or that is, while la vie means life.
Based on these literal meanings, c’est la vie can be translated into English as that’s life or such is life.
The expression is used when we want to emphasize the unchangeable nature of life and the human experience.
- Mon patron m’a donné tellement de travail cette semaine. / C’est la vie. – My boss gave me so much work this week. / Such is life.
- Bien sûr, il a plu le jour de ma fête. C’est la vie. – Of course, it rained on the day of my party. That’s life.
Because of this phrase’s popularity in the media, even in other languages, note that many people use it without knowing how it’s actually spelled. Some incorrect spellings include “se la vie,” “ces la vie,” and “cest la vie.” The correct spelling is always c’est la vie.
C’est la vie in English: Figurative meanings
So now if someone asks you what does c’est la vie mean, you know its literal translation. But when we think about a good c’est la vie meaning in English, isn’t it usually used figuratively anyway? Let’s take a look.
Figuratively speaking, a few different English expressions can work for the phrase c’est la vie. Some of your options include that’s how it is, that’s how things go, that’s the way it works, that’s how the cookie crumbles, or just it is what it is. In French, regardless of the exact English expression you opt for, the intended meaning of c’est la vie remains the same: you’re faced with a bitter truth, and you just need to accept it.
- Mon vol a été annulé et je dois passer cinq heures à l’aéroport. C’est la vie d’un voyageur ! – My flight was canceled and I have to spend five hours at the airport. That’s how things go for a traveler!
- Il t’a fait un lapin ? Bof, c’est la vie. – He stood you up? Well, it is what it is.
C’est la vie: Other contexts in French
The French actually use the expression c’est la vie less frequently than you do in English. Is this because English speakers like to sound cultured by using French phrases? Or perhaps it’s simply that, compared with English, the French language has more ways to express the idea of life’s inflexible nature?
In any case, what’s important to understand is that the use of c’est la vie in English and in French isn’t exactly the same. In this section we’ll see some of the other contexts where we use c’est la vie in French, while in the next section we’ll look at other French expressions that carry a similar sentiment.
To express passion
The French often use the expression c’est la vie, or even its possessive version c’est ma vie, to express a great passion for something. In this context, a better English translation would be it’s my life or that’s what life is all about.
This is a great way to convey how invested you are in a given topic, and to use the phrase c’est la vie in a positive context!
- Le vin et le fromage, c’est la vie ! – Wine and cheese, that’s what life is about!
- Enseigner, c’est ma grande passion. C’est ma vie. – Teaching, it’s my great passion. It’s my life.
To express the nature of a profession
The phrase c’est la vie de can be used to express the nature of a profession or position. The literal translation of c’est la vie de is that’s the life of, so we simply follow it with the position we’re generalizing about.
- Étudier, c’est la vie d’un étudiant. – Studying is the life of a student.
- Être créatif, c’est la vie d’un artiste. – Being creative is the life of an artist.
Synonyms for “C’est la vie” in French
C’est la vie, as you know it in English, isn’t used nearly as much by the French for expressing a resignation with the status quo. In this section we’ll introduce a few synonyms for c’est la vie, meaning approximately the same thing in French.
Que veux-tu, Que veux-tu faire
Another way to express the same idea as c’est la vie – that is, the sometimes unfortunate and unchangeable nature of life – is with the expression que veux-tu ? or que veux-tu faire ?. The first option literally translates as what do you want?, while the second is what do you want to do?.
As you probably guessed, these phrases are used in the same way as you’d use what are you going to do?, what are you gonna do?, or what can you do? in English.
Note that although we’ve included question marks on all these expressions, they’re really just there to encourage the right intonation when saying each phrase. In reality, each version of que veux-tu is really just a rhetorical question expressed as a statement of resignation.
- J’ai perdu €100 en rien de temps au casino, mais que veux-tu faire, c’est ça le jeu. – I lost €100 in no time flat at the casino, but what are you going to do, that’s how the game goes.
- Ils étaient en grève encore ce matin, donc j’ai dû marcher. Que veux tu? – They were on strike again this morning, so I had to walk. What can you do?
Que voulez-vous is the more formal version of que veux-tu that we saw above, and carries the same meaning. This rhetorical question can also be used when addressing a group of people, or in a context where the audience is very general.
- Trois examens le même jour, mais que voulez-vous, c’est le lycée ! – Three tests on the same day, but that’s life in high school!
- Je suis d’accord avec vous, Madame, que oui, le prix des trains ne cessent pas d’augmenter. Que voulez vous? – I agree with you, Ma’am, that yes, the train fares keep going up. What can you do?
C’est comme ça
Another synonym for c’est la vie is c’est comme ça, literally translating to it’s like that in English. This informal expression is a good substitution when you want to vary your reactions instead of always resorting to c’est la vie.
While it’s frequently used on its own, c’est comme ça can be used with verbs or nouns to express that that’s the way it is. Other potential English equivalents could be that’s [verb or noun] for you! or that’s how it goes.
- Le bébé a encore vomi sur ma tenue. Être mère, c’est comme ça. – The baby spit up on my outfit again. Being a mother, that’s how it goes.
- En été, j’ai toujours de la fumée du tabac qui entre dans ma fenêtre. Vivre à l’étage d’un bar, c’est comme ça! – In the summer, I always have cigarette smoke coming in my window. That’s living upstairs from a bar for you!
Our last synonym for c’est la vie is c’est ainsi, meaning it’s like that in English as well. This expression is slightly more formal than c’est comme ça, but it’s used in the same way. You might use this expression in more professional settings, when you want to express the idea of c’est la vie with slightly more sophisticated vocabulary.
- Elle a eu la promotion qui était à toi ? C’est ainsi le népotisme ! – She got the promotion that was supposed to go to you? That’s nepotism for you!
- Nous ne pouvons pas vous offrir plus que le SMIC. C’est ainsi. – We can’t offer you more than minimum wage. That’s the way it goes.
So what does c’est la vie mean in French? In this post, we went deep on this popular French expression! Just like its use in English, c’est la vie is generally used in French to express that we’re resigned to accepting some situation that’s not exactly ideal.
We started off by discussing the meaning of c’est la vie in English, looking at both the literal and figurative meanings including that’s life, such is life, that’s how it is, or it is what it is. We covered some of the common contexts where we can use c’est la vie in French, including a couple of positive circumstances where we ust it to refer to something we love.
Nonetheless, the most well-known way to use c’est la vie in French and in English is when confronted with life’s inevitable events or ideas, for better or for worse. We rounded out our post with a few other French expressions that are synonymous with this c’est la vie meaning.
Finally, look out for our upcoming light-hearted post with a bunch of songs with c’est la vie in them. These c’est la vie songs won’t necessarily answer the question of what does c’est la vie mean, but at least they’re fun. Voilà, c’est la vie!