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La lanterne rouge

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La lanterne rouge

Être la lanterne rouge - to be the red lantern - means to come last in a ranking, or list. The expression is mostly used to describe a person, or group, trailing behind the others in a given situation.  The red lanterns are not just coming last, they are also clearly, or even significantly, behind the others.

The phrase is commonly used in the sporting world to refer to a contestant or a team placing last in a competition.  The connotation in sports is less negative than it is in everyday language; it does not mean that the last in a ranking is perceived as being a "loser," just that he/she placed last in a race.

A question that may come to mind is: why would the one holding the lantern be last in line?  Wouldn't you expect them to be first instead?

Origin

This expression is fairly recent. It was coined in the early days of railways when red lanterns would be hung from the last railcar on a train.  Signalmen would look for this light in order to make sure none of the couplings had become disconnected and no railcar had been left behind.

It was popularized by the Tour de France which, since its first race in 1903, has used the term lanterne rouge to refer to the competitor who finishes in last place.  A bad place, you may think.  Well, not necessarily.  In fact, cyclists sometimes compete for the title of the lanterne rouge when they know they will not rank high on the Tour de France.  The red lantern status will provide them with more media attention than if they were to finish a few places ahead.  You may see photos of the ‘winner’ of the title completing a lap of honour in Paris holding a red lantern handed to him by photographers or spectators.

Why would one want to celebrate failure?  It is hard to know exactly why the Red Lantern title has gained so much popularity throughout the years.  But all those fans can’t be completely wrong.  Maybe they cheer him on because they feel for the underdog, or because they feel that, in the peloton of superhumans, riding across whole mountain ranges and countries at impossible speeds, the Lanterne Rouge is the most like them, the most human.  And he never gave up.  Against all odds, he crossed the finish line. That, in itself, commands respect.

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