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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 phrase of the Day: Ne me prends pas pour un lapin de six semaines

Being patronised by a Frenchman? Roll out this phrase.

French phrase of the Day: Ne me prends pas pour un lapin de six semaines

Why do I need to know ne me prends pas pour un lapin de six semaines?

Because someone might be trying to take you for a fool.

What does it mean?

Ne me prends pas pour un lapin de six semaines – pronounced ne me pren pah pour un lapan de see sem-enn – translates as ‘don’t take me for a six-week-old rabbit’, and is a go-to phrase to warn people not to mistake you for a fool, someone who doesn’t understand what’s going on.

The podcast Hit West from French regional newspaper Ouest-France suggests that the ‘six weeks’ comes from the age a rabbit is weaned at, and must therefore be ready to survive on its own.

And why a rabbit at all? Well no-one really seems very sure. Rabbits don’t get a good rap in the French language though, to stand someone up is poser un lapin in French.

English-language metaphor equivalents may be, “I didn’t come down in the last shower”, “I wasn’t born yesterday”, or, as Line of Duty’s DCI Hastings might say, “I didn’t float up the Lagan in a bubble”.

Use it like this

Honestly, keep it simple. If someone’s speaking to you in a patronising manner, simply say: Ne me prends pas pour un lapin de six semaines.

Ouest France suggests that this is the ‘more elegant’ way to request that people don’t take you for a fool. It’s not offensive, but it might be a little old-fashioned. 


You can use the more basic version of this phrase – Ne me prends pas pour une idiote (don’t take me for a fool) or the slightly more punchy Ne me prends pas pour un con (don’t take me for a moron).