Anybody remember that song? Ah, summer of ’93. I spent most of it sitting under the tree in the backyard reading The Three Musketeers series, but I didn’t escape this song. I don’t even know what it’s about, but it sure gets stuck in your head (Can you dig it?). And today, it’s going to help you learn some French! I bet those Tag Team guys never counted on that.
We English-speakers have appropriated several French phrases into our daily speech mostly because it makes us sound sophisticated, but also because they have words or phrases that convey an idea that wasn’t readily available in English. And why translate when somebody already has a word for it? Think about it: chic, carte-blanche, laissez-faire, en route… You know more French than you thought, don’t you?
Another favorite is voilà. And about half of the American populace cannot spell it right to save their lives. If you’re going to try and sound sophisticated by using a French word in English conversation, you’d better know how to spell it and say it correctly, otherwise any potential sophistication just flew right out the window.
No better place to start than the beginning. Voilà begins with a V. Does that seem obvious? Yet, there are still plenty of people who spell or say it Walla. First off, if a letter is going to be silent in French, it will be at the end of the word. Second, “Walla” is half of “Walla-Walla,” a town in Eastern Washington State, best known for sweet onions and being home to the state penitentiary (immortalized in a song by The Offspring). And, for the record, prison: not sophisticated.
So we’ve established that it begins with a V. That V is followed by an OI. Not IO. “Viola” is a string instrument, slightly bigger than a violin. They have those in France, too, and it’s called l’alto. Besides, if you switch the O and the I, you eliminate that “wah” sound that makes the word so fun. Say it with me: O + I makes wah. “Voi” = “vwah.”
And now we’re getting into what the word actually means. The prefix of “voi” comes from the word voir, to see. Là means “there” (and I will forgive you the accent in English because it’s not necessary for the pronunciation), bringing us full circle to the Tag Team. Voilà is just the high class version of “Whoomp! There it is!” It can be used in abstract ways (after you’ve made a particularly compelling point in a debate) or in a more physical sense (you just found your other shoe under the couch). It can also be used as a fancy “ta-dah!” after accomplishing some task. All of these are perfectly legit and are the same ways voilà is used in French conversation. If you can imagine yourself saying, “Whoomp! There it is!” accompanied by a little hip-hop dance, you can probably substitute voilà in the same situation. Without the dance, though.