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French word of the day: A tombeau ouvert

An expression full of imagery, with a dark meaning

French word of the day: A tombeau ouvert
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know à tombeau ouvert ?

Because once you've spent some time driving on French roads you might find this one very apt.

What does it mean ?

A tombeau ouvert dates back to the end of the 18th century and is always used after verbs that indicate a movement, for instance to gallop.

A tombeau ouvert was first used to raise awareness of the danger of high speed while riding a horse.

Tombeau means tomb, and ouvert means open, so to gallop à tombeau ouvert basically meant that you were running the risk of being in an accident, and therefore a wide open tomb was waiting for you if you kept on going fast.  

Following the invention of the internal combustion engine à tombeau ouvert came to be used primarily with the verb conduire (to drive) and it remains the case today.

So literally, if you are driving à tombeau ouvert, it means that you will be heading straight for the grave if you don't slow down.

It's similar to its English equivalent 'to drive at breakneck speed' in that it doesn't literally signify that you are about to die, just that you are travelling dangerously fast.

Use it like this

J’ai vu une Porsche rouler à tombeau ouvert sur l’autoroute – I saw a Porsche going like a bat out of hell on the highway.

Elio pédalait à tombeau ouvert pour rejoindre ses amis – Elio was riding his bike at breakneck speed to meet his friends.


A bride abattue – At full tilt

A toute allure – Flat out  

Comme un dératé – Like a bat out of hell

A fond la caisse – Hell for leather

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For members


French Expression of the Day: Chanter faux

This is definitely not lip synching.

French Expression of the Day: Chanter faux

Why do I need to know Chanter faux ?

Because if you were not blessed with a beautiful singing voice, then this might be a good phrase to know. 

What does it mean?

Chanter faux – pronounced shahn-tay foe – literally means to ‘fake sing.’ You might assume this expression would mean ‘lip sync’ in French, but its true meaning is to sing out of tune. (Lip synching is chanter en playback).

It joins a chorus of other French expressions about bad singing, like chanter comme une casserole (to sing like a saucepan) or chanter comme une seringue (to sing like a siren).  

Chanter faux is actually the most correct way to describe someone being off key, so it might be a better option than comparing another’s voice to a cooking utensil. 

You might have seen this expression pop up recently amid the drought, as people call for rain dances and rain singing (where there is no shame in singing badly).

Use it like this

Pendant l’audition pour la pièce, Sarah a chanté faux. Malheureusement, elle n’a pas obtenu le rôle. – During her audition for the play, Sarah sang out of tune. Sadly, she did not get a role.

Si on fait un karaoké, tu verras comme je chante mal. Je chante vraiment faux, mais je m’en fiche. Il s’agit de s’amuser. – If we do karaoke you will see how badly I sing. I am really out of tune, but I don’t care. It’s all about having fun.