How the French really use ‘voilà’

A waiter in Paris carries food to the table. Many voilà's are likely to be exchanged.
A waiter in Paris carries food to the table. Many voilà's are likely to be exchanged. (Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP)
It is one of the most widely-used French words, but not always in the way that English-speakers expect.

Even people with an extremely limited grasp of the French language will have heard the word voilà

In English-speaking countries, we tend to assume that voilà is used to emphasise some spectacular action. We might imagine a waiter lifting the lid of a silver platter, announcing “Voilà“, to unveil an exquisite dish. Or perhaps we imagine a bedazzled, curly-moustached magician uttering this word as he pulls a live rabbit from a hat. 

But in France, although it can be used in this sense, it’s far more commonplace and has a variety of far more mundane uses. 

Once you listen for it, you will hear it everywhere; at work, in shops, restaurants, cafes, schools, you name it – whether as a curt and compact ‘vwa-lah’ or a long drawn-out ‘vwaaaa-lah’. 

Literal meaning 

Voilà is essentially a combination of two words: voir (to see/look) and (there).

So literally speaking, voilà is an instruction. When you use it, you are telling people to ‘look there’.

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So you can use voilà to draw attention to something that you can physically see. 

Voilà, le canal St-Martin – Look, the St Martin canal 

Voilà, mon ordinateur – Look, there’s my computer 

But there are plenty of other, slightly less literal, uses of voilà.

Voilà in customer service 

Voilà votre monnaie (here is your change) is perhaps the most common usage of voilà, frequently heard in shops, bakeries, restaurants etc. 

The word can in fact be used in most contexts, when giving something to someone.

Voilà, le pull que tu m’as prêté la semaine dernière – Here, take the pullover that you lent me last week 

Voilà to replace C’est 

Voilà can be used more or less interchangeably with c’est (it is). This is far from the most common usage of the word, but it is one to listen out for. 

Voilà où il habite maintenant – This is where he lives now

Voilà ce que nous devons faire – This is what we need to do

Voilà pourquoi je suis parti – This is why I left

Voilà as a conclusion 

Voilà, often in combination with bon, can be used as a verbal marker to signify that you are ending a conversation, or have said everything that you need to say. 

Bon voilà – So, there you go… 

On va commencer avec ma présentation, suivi d’une visite du jardin et puis le déjeuner, voilà – We will start with my presentation, followed by a visit to the garden and then lunch. That is all. 

C’est pour cela que je souhaite habiter en France. Voilà – In conclusion, that is why I want to live in France. 

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An expected result

Voilà can also be used when an expected action, task or realisation is completed. For example, you could voilà if you are waiting in the cold for a train to arrive ages and it finally does. This is where you would stretch out the final syllables, perhaps to express relief: ‘vwaaa-lah’. 

Parents often use voilà when talking to their children as a kind of ‘I told you so’. 

Non, arrête, c’est trop lourd pour toi, tu vas le faire tomber *OBJECT CRASHES*… et voilà ! – No, stop, it is too heavy for you, you will drop it *OBJECT CRASHES*… There you go! 

Et… quoi…

You can pretty much always add et (and) before the word voilà like so: et voilà

Equally, when using voilà at the end of a sentence, particularly in an informal setting, you may hear people say voilà quoi

In both cases, the meaning of the word does not actually change, you’re just adding extra emphasis with the et or the quoi.

Pronunciation

And if you want to know how to pronounce it, check out France’s 2021 Eurovision entry. It’s entitled Voilà and the chorus goes; 

Voilà, voilà, voilà, voilà qui je suis
Me voilà même si mise à nue j’ai peur, oui
Me voilà dans le bruit et dans le silence

Here, here, here, here’s who I am
Here I am even scared and naked, yes
Here I am in the noise and in the silence


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