What does the French expression "Bon courage" signify?
“Bon courage” is a fairly general well-wishing expression. It can be used in many contexts where the person being spoken to is about to perform a difficult action.
There is no exact English equivalent. Often, but not always, “good luck” can be used in similar situations. The expression “bonne chance” also exists in French, but far more than in English, it carries the connotation that the person will succeed or fail due to purely external factors. In contrast, “bon courage” implies that success will be due to the person's strength. “Bon courage” also implies some ordeal, some difficulty (though it can be the difficulty of day-to-day life). If there is a genuine ordeal in the person's path then “bon courage” applies. (Note: I'm speaking as a Frenchman, I believe Canadian French uses “bonne chance” more often.)
A few examples:
— Il faut que j'annonce la mauvaise nouvelle au patron. (I have to tell the bad news to the boss.) — Bon courage !
— Je rentre chez moi, bonne soirée ! (I'm going home, have a nice evening.) — Tu as de la chance, j'en ai encore pour deux heures pour finir ce dossier. (You're lucky, I have another two hours's work to finish this task.) — Bon courage !
Je me fais opérer demain. (I'll be undergoing surgery tomorrow.) — Bon courage ! [“Bonne chance” would carry the implication that there is a chance of failure and is likely to be resented. “Bon courage” implies that this is a difficult moment but that this moment will pass.]
— Le concours commence demain. (My exams start tomorrow) — Bon courage ! OR Bonne chance ! [“Bon courage” denotes the difficulty of the exam; “bonne chance” expresses the hope that the person will be quizzed on topics that they know well.]
— Je déménage demain. (I'm moving tomorrow.) — Bon courage ! [“Bonne chance” would be weird here as there is no luck involved, only a hard task to perform.]
— La première de la pièce dans laquelle je joue est tout à l'heure. (The opening performance of the play I'm performing in is later today.) — Merde ! (Break a leg!) [In French, like in English, explicitly expressing good wishes before a performance is considered unlucky.]
Linguee has more examples of uses of bon courage with official translations.
Actually, I usually say “merde” instead of “bonne chance” for exams too. “Bon courage” is alright too. This might be a very local usage, though... In any case, you should avoid saying “merde” as it is quite crude.
"Bon courage" could also be used in a sarcastic way, everytime someone is going to perform an unpleasant action, like going to work, shopping with the girlfriend, etc.
that's a very good answer but it miss one usage of "bon courage". it's sometime used as an euphemism. eg: -"Je ne travaille pas demain, je vais à la plage avec Sophie"(I have a day off tomorrow I'm going to the beach with Sophie) -"bon courage!" ("bonne chance" here means I envy you as you)
@Edouard and about this point in Gilles's answer : *Merde* can only be used in contexts where one can afford to be perceived as both slightly rude and openly superstitious, so it's to be avoided in professional context for example.
@RomainVALERI Indeed. Is *merde* ever used in this sense except by actors and in other similar contexts by people with sufficient familiarity with this idiom?
I just guess it's the same thing for the english counterpart you mentioned (*Break a leg!*). But I remember having heard *merde* used in this sense in many contexts where I felt it a bit silly/offensive, first of all when I was at university before exams. Not a great deal, though, I'm not on a crusade against this usage ;-)
@Fabinout: Yes. And an English equivalent of this sarcastic sense is "*Good luck with that!*"
@Gilles You said "I believe Canadian French uses “bonne chance” more often". I can confirm that almost nobody from Quebec say "Bon courage".
@Édouard "merde" is crude except in the case of a performance, where saying merde to express its best wishes of success, to the actors before the opening, is a tradition.
As an added "example situation", as someone who just biked around Normandy for two weeks, I can say for 100% sure that "bon courage" is *the* thing to say to someone on a bike tour. Repeatedly, and almost without exception, this is what French people said to me when we were parting ways and I was pedaling off.