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From Literature to Pop Culture: The History of “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?”

The stereotype of the French as very romantic people has led to the English-speaking world adopting the French phrase “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” as a cliché of misunderstanding the language. The phrase translates to “Do you want to sleep (make love) with me tonight?” and is often one of the few French phrases known and used by English speakers without studying the language or fully understanding its meaning.

The phrase made its American debut in John Dos Passos’ 1921 novel “Three Soldiers” (without the “ce soir).” In the novel, a character jokes that the only French he knows is “Voulay vous couchay aveck mwah?”

It wasn’t until E.E. Cummings’ 1922 poem “Guerre IV,” also known as “little ladies more,” that the five words were spelled correctly:

“exactly in my brain voulez-
vous coucher avec
moi? Non? pourquoi?)”

During World War II, many US soldiers stationed in France used the shorter form of the phrase, again without a full understanding of its meaning or proper usage. The full expression didn’t appear until 1947 in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but it was written with a grammatical error as “Voulez-vous couchez [sic] avec moi ce soir?”

The phrase gained even more popularity in 1974 when the girl group Labelle recorded the hit song “Lady Marmalade,” which was written by Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan and originally titled “Lady Marmalade (Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?).” The phrase was used as a hook in the song and became a popular catchphrase.

In 2001, Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, and Pink covered the song for the movie “Moulin Rouge!” and won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.

While the origins of the phrase are unclear, it is commonly used as a flirtatious pick-up line in French-speaking cultures. The phrase’s recognition extends beyond French-speaking countries and into popular culture, thanks to its use in literature, poetry, and music.

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