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I recently learned by email that an acquaintance is planning to return from London to Philadelphia, and started to close my response with "Bon voyage!" Then I thought about using English instead, but realized that "Good trip!" doesn't work at all. So I chose "Safe travels!", which does work.

This made me wonder about the usage patterns involved — why does French "Bonne chance!" translates to "Good luck" but "Bon voyage" doesn't work as "Good trip"?

In English, at least, it seems that evaluative ADJECTIVE NOUN combinations are generally OK as comments on objects, states, or events in current focus: "Good work", "Nice car", "Big problem", "Tough luck", … But the set of such phrases that can be used to express wishes for the future seems to be much more limited.

So we can say "Have a good time!" but not "Good time!" "Have a good trip!" but not "Good trip!" — those phrases could be evaluations but not hopes.

There are plenty of other cases in English that work as hopes rather than evaluations, like "Happy birthday!", "Merry Christmas!", "Good morning!"; but the construction seems to be lexically limited.

Are the versions in other languages less restricted? Or just different?

Are the English expressions residues of a historical stage when the construction was more general? Or borrowings from languages with less restricted patterns? Or just analogous extensions from a few interactional seeds?

Update — Eugene Volokh wrote:

In Russian – perhaps under the influence of French – both “bon voyage” and “bon appetit” translate into “счастливого пути” (“fortunate path”) and "приятного аппетита” (“pleasant appetite”). One Russian woman who used to work at our family software company back in the day would often calque the latter as “good appetite!,” which the native English speakers found amusing.

There’s also “приятного сна,” which is literally “pleasant sleep,” but in English there’s likewise “sweet dreams”; and there’s “спокойной ночи” (“peaceful night”) = “good night.” All the formulations I can think of are in the genitive, and good be seen as being short for “Желaю Вам [тебе]” (“I wish for you [thou] …”).

Hard for me to quantify, even casually, the frequency of such phrases, though they seem to be somewhat more normal in Russian than in English.


  1. A. Barmazel said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 7:54 am

    In languages that do distinguish between nominative and accusative, there is no ambiguity between evaluations and hopes.

  2. Thomas Rees said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 8:38 am

    Google translates “¡buen provecho!” into English as “bon appetite” whatever that is!

  3. Laura Morland said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 10:30 am

    Further complicating the French-to-English translation conundrum: the French don't actually say « bonne chance » very often. They are 10 times more likely to say « Bon courage ! » …. and try translating THAT into English.

    A Dutch friend of mine (who had already lived and worked for several years) here in Paris started teaching at Berlitz some years ago. One day, when a colleague remarked that she was about to leave to embark upon a difficult project, my friend's French reflex would have been to say, « Bon courage ! », but they were speaking English, so she wished her "Good luck!"

    Her colleague seemed insulted, as if my friend were implying that she wasn't capable of succeeding on her own, without a bit of luck.

    My friend later asked me, as a native English speaker, how I would translate « Bon courage », but I didn't have a good answer. I still don't. (FYI, « courage » in this context usually means something closer to "force" or "strength".)

  4. JJM said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 11:07 am

    Yes, "Bonne chance!" can be a little ambiguous – even ominous – and not necessarily always received positively.

  5. Bloix said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 11:25 am

    Laura Morland –
    The King James translators had trouble with this as well.

    When God instructs Joshua to lead the Israelites into war against the Canaanites, He tells them:

    הֲלֹ֤וא צִוִּיתִ֙יךָ֙ חֲזַ֣ק וֶאֱמָ֔ץ אַֽל־תַּעֲרֹ֖ץ וְאַל־תֵּחָ֑ת כִּ֤י
    עִמְּךָ֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר תֵּלֵֽךְ׃

    "Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed, for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.”

    Be strong and of a good courage? Seriously?

    The Hebrew is "Hazak v'ematz" – short, alliterative, and vigorous. The literal meaning is "Strong and brave!"

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 11:26 am

    [« Bon courage »] — Collins-Robert (under bon, not courage !) offers only "Good luck !".

  7. David L said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 11:53 am

    Be strong and of a good courage

    "Be best" might work instead.

  8. Greg said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 11:56 am

    I'm intrigued by the idea that "Happy Birthday", "Merry Christmas" and "Good morning!" are hopes. For me, at least, they are a short form of "This is a (good morning)!" and I would say that they can't be expressing a hope because there's nothing in there to indicate the future.

    Incidentally, I caused a fair amount of fuss amongst my Ukrainian friends when, observing (as Mark notes from his Russian friend) that the Ukrainian for "good morning" (доброго ранку) is in the genitive, I asked why. It took three of them before we found someone who knew it was a shortened form of "I wish you a good morning"!

  9. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 12:22 pm

    The Italian language is great fun in this respect. We have:

    "Auguri!" (auguries, omens, auspices, i.e. "Don't forget to consult your bird entrails before you go!"),

    "In bocca al lupo!" ("into the mouth of the wolf", must be something like "break a leg"),

    "In culo alla balena!" ("into the ass of the whale", I think I'll take my chances with the wolf, thanks),

    and plain-old "Buona fortuna" (good fortune).

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 12:23 pm

    For me, "Happy X, "Good X", and all similar of which I can think, are expressions of a wish, regardless of "there [being] nothing in there to indicate the future".

  11. Batchman said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 1:00 pm

    Which means that the common retort to "Good morning" of "What's good about it?" is without basis.

    It is notable that the Spanish "buenos días" and "buenas noches" don't match the usual nominal forms. They seem to derive from the Latin genitive or accusative forms, which strengthens the argument that they are expressed wishes rather than a declaration.

  12. Martha said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 1:17 pm

    Greg – Although "good morning" could be a shortening of "This is a good morning," I don't think the same is true of "happy birthday" and "merry Christmas." You want the other person to have a good birthday/Christmas, not commenting that you're having one yourself. And they both clearly indicate the future, given that you can say them several days before the actual birthday/Christmas. But also, people do say "Have a happy birthday" and "Have a merry Christmas." That sounds like a command to me, but I suppose it could be a shortening of "I hope you have a happy birthday."

    Laura Morland – Thank you so much for the insight into "bon courage." I only ever learned "bonne chance" in school, but I was recently practicing French with someone who kept using "bon courage," until I finally asked her what it meant because she kept saying it in situations that I personally didn't think required any amount of courage. The only answers I ever got were along the lines of "It's just something you say" so I gave up, intending to do some research (and never did).

  13. RachelP said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 2:30 pm

    Just thinking about this today as I said, 'Bonjour' at the start of a conversation and 'Bonne journée' at the end of it.

    'Bonne journée' is very clearly wishing someone a good day, but 'bonjour' would not do at the end of a conversation and I suppose isn't wishing someone a good day but what is it doing?

    And now I don't know what 'bonjour' even means and I'm having a crise.

  14. David Morris said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 2:31 pm

    Working at home since April last year, my first contribution to the group chat with my colleagues every morning is usually 'Good morning', either by itself or with a further comment based on what the previous colleague(s) has/have said. My last contribution is 'Good afternoon'. On Fridays I usually add 'Good weekend'.

    As an ESL teacher, I often pondered whether 'Good morning' means 'It is a good morning' or 'I hope you have a good morning'. If I am having a bad morning, I sometimes reply with a pointed 'Hello' or 'Is it?'.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 3:34 pm

    Rachel — according to Julie Barlow & Jean-Benoît Nadeau [1], « Bonjour ! » is an essential ice-breaker at the start of any and every conversation, and is also required even if one is not planning to converse but simply acknowledging the presence (and existence) of another human being. Fail to use it, and you may well be ignored (or worse) — use it without fail, and while you may still be a foreigner, you will at least be a foreigner with manners !
    [1] The Bonjour Effect — The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed; Duckworth Overlook, 2016.

  16. Peter Taylor said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 3:40 pm

    Good hunting!

    Tolkien put the ambiguity about "Good morning" in the mouth of Gandalf:

    "Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?"

    "What a lot of things you do use Good morning for!" said Gandalf. "Now you mean that you want to get rid of me, and that it won't be good till I move off."

  17. Neil T said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 4:26 pm

    Rachel, on your "'bonjour' would not do at the end of a conversation"…

    Try telling that to the québécois.

    When I was teaching there, kids even used to say 'Hello Neil!' as they were LEAVING my classroom – modelled on their conversation-ending 'bonjour' in French.

  18. Kenny Easwaran said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 4:38 pm

    It feels to me like the construction "Happy X-ing!" can in fact be generalized to lots of novel verbs. It would be odd, but would feel grammatically just fine, to see someone mowing the lawn, have a brief conversation, and then as I leave, say "Happy Lawnmowing!" (I give this example just as an example of this construction in a context that is *not* a stock phrase, that I think others might find acceptable.) You could probably come up with any number of other verbs there, as long as any object that is needed is built in to the verb.

    I can also do "Happy X-day", where "X-day" is any day of the week, or any named holiday. (In American English it feels odd to say "Happy Christmas", but only because we've got the stock phrase "Merry Christmas".) It probably even works with any numerical date too, as long as it's today's date. I think it's fine to do with a month ("Happy March!", said on March 1, or the first time you see someone in March) or a year ("Happy 2021!" said at the beginning of the year) but I'm less sure whether it works with times of day ("Happy 4 pm!") or other durations of time ("Happy Election Season!").

    However, I think with "Good X", you can only do this where "X" is drawn from a finite class (morning, afternoon, day, evening, night, luck, and maybe a few others).

  19. Rick Rubenstein said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 4:43 pm

    I'm sure there used to be more of these in English. As far as I'm concerned, good riddance.

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 4:57 pm

    Goodness gracious me.

  21. Philip Anderson said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 6:27 pm

    Bon courage – “chin up” maybe?

    To me, “bon voyage” and “bon appetit” come more naturally than any English version. Maybe “safe journey” for the former (a trip would be more than just the travelling)

  22. Joe Fineman said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 6:34 pm

    I find the situation in Russian curious. "To wish" (zhelat') takes the genitive, so it is no surprise that "pleasant appetite", "quiet night", and "merry Christmas" are in the genitive; that marks them as wishes. But "good morning {afternoon, evening}" are either nominative or accusative (they happen to be masculine inanimate nouns, so I can't tell which). Perhaps they are indeed meant as observations, or some other verb is implied.

    I am astonished by the news that there are people who, in English, parse "Good morning" etc. as observations. It seems to me that in their usual context they are polite wishes, and the people who reply "What's good about it?" are swine. But maybe not.

  23. RfP said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 7:39 pm

    We wish you a merry Christmas!
    We wish you a merry Christmas!
    We wish you a merry Christmas!
    And a happy new year.!

    Happy birthday to you!
    Happy birthday to you!
    Happy birthday, dear Linguist!
    Happy birthday to you!

    Good morning to you!
    Good morning to you!
    We’re all in our places,
    With milk on our faces.

  24. John Swindle said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 8:32 pm

    Yesterday I visited a shoe repair shop that had much Christian and some pandemic signage in English, a Korean Christian calendar, and a small sign saying "GOD BE SAFE".

    Medallions in or on cars saying "交通安全“ ("traffic safety") used to puzzle me. Were they Chinese or Japanese? Awards for safe driving? Exhortations to drive safely? Aspirations for safety on the road? The fine print made clear that they were from Shinto shrines, so more like good luck charms.

  25. John Shutt said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 9:52 pm

    Honestly, I naturally interpret ""Happy birthday!"/"Merry Christmas!"/"Good morning!"/etc. as imperatives (cheerful ones). ("… and have yourself a merry little Christmas now").

  26. Garrett Wollman said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 10:18 pm

    While we don't say "Good time!", we do say "Good times", and that's clearly commentary (often sarcastic) rather than a forward-looking statement.

  27. Chris Button said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 10:43 pm

    I wonder if it's a problem with the term "adjective". It's not really a concept in many languages, but a term foisted upon them by a certain bias in linguistic analysis. So, for example, "the red car" is essentially the same as "the car is red". In the first example, "red" is traditionally treated as an adjective. But in the second example, "is red" functions as a verb in the same way as "drives" in "the car drives".

    The examples cited in the post and the comments–whether they work or don't work–seem to be just colloquial abbreviations that for one reason or another developed a specific accepted usage. Or, to Philip Taylor's Tolkien quote about "good morning", perhaps less specific but still with a specified usage.

  28. John Swindle said,

    February 4, 2021 @ 12:12 am

    @Neil T: And when anglophone Americans meet one one another in the middle of the night they can't say "Good night" but must choose between "Good evening" and "Good morning" (or of course an informal alternative). Probably Canadians, too, not that I'm presuming Canadians meet one another in the middle of the night.

  29. rosie said,

    February 4, 2021 @ 2:41 am

    Laura Morland: Seeing as "Bon courage" is commoner than "Bonne chance", does the latter carry the suggestion that luck will be needed, and would such a suggestion seem insulting? For me, "Good luck!" implies a wish of good luck, but this does not seem insulting; after all, the outcome of this planned future action can't be predicted with certainty.

  30. Picky said,

    February 4, 2021 @ 3:56 am

    In rural England, at least, my impression is that good morning is frequently (mostly?) shortened to just “Morning!” as a general greeting, including just to passers by. After noon the equivalents “Good afternoon” and “Afternoon!” seem to me to be retreating, replaced often with just “Hello!”

  31. Philip Taylor said,

    February 4, 2021 @ 4:06 am

    Not sure about "rural England", although this little bit of Cornwall is about as rural as one can get, but I do find that a disturbing number of correspondents use it ["Morning"] as an introductory greeting in e-mails. I don't like it. I normally start "Hallo — " in e-mails, but switch to "Good morning — " for more formal ones.

  32. A. Barmazel said,

    February 4, 2021 @ 5:03 am

    @Joe Fineman
    > But "good morning {afternoon, evening}" are either nominative or accusative (they happen to be masculine inanimate nouns, so I can't tell which). Perhaps they are indeed meant as observations, or some other verb is implied.

    "good night" is a curious exception to this, used in the genitive, same as "quiet night" is. ("good night" is a greeting, whereas "quiet night" is a valediction.)

  33. Michael Watts said,

    February 4, 2021 @ 8:14 am

    are either nominative or accusative (they happen to be masculine inanimate nouns, so I can't tell which)

    There is a similar phenomenon in Latin (and probably Greek, but I'm not really trained in Greek): the accusative case of a neuter noun is identical with the nominative case, in both singular and plural (these differ from each other, but the accusative is always identical with the nominative), whatever that nominative form is, no matter how weird it may seem.

    That is, it is not the case that there is a particular neuter-accusative case ending, and neuter nouns tend to have nominative forms that happen to match. There is no neuter-accusative case ending, and whatever the nominative form is, that form is also the accusative form. (Compare the quite unusual proximal demonstrative, where the neuter plural nominative/accusative form is "haec".)

    I've always thought this was a funny rule, and particularly so for one gender of a three-gender noun system, and I'm curious how it came about.

    Is the situation in Russian similar, where there is a rule of identicality regardless of the nominative form? Has anyone ever opined on why things should be like that, even for very strange nominative forms?

  34. S Frankel said,

    February 4, 2021 @ 10:10 am

    @Michael Taylor – I believe that nominative and accusative are identical for all Indo-European languages, presumably dating back to PIE, presumably because the neuter was used for non-animate things (things without spirits or souls or whatever) which did not take part, in actor-patient relations. In other words,the neuter nom-acc is more like the absolute case from an absolute-ergative system.

  35. Robert Coren said,

    February 4, 2021 @ 10:24 am

    In German, guten Morgen, guten Abend, and guten Tag are definitely accusative, and therefore I assume that gute Nacht is as well, despite the fact that the nominative and accusative of feminine nouns are not distinguished by inflection.

  36. Scott P. said,

    February 4, 2021 @ 1:44 pm

    To me, “bon voyage” and “bon appetit” come more naturally than any English version

    Which perhaps explains why they were borrowed in the first place…

  37. Terpomo said,

    February 4, 2021 @ 3:04 pm

    @Laura Morland
    Perhaps the appropriate translation of "bon courage" is "ganbatte". You may object this is Japanese and not English, but any arbitrary bit of Japanese can become English in some online circles. (I was interested to notice 4chan users borrowing "menhera" recently.)

  38. Peter Grubtal said,

    February 5, 2021 @ 3:04 am

    Ellipsis in greetings and partings seems then common to many languages. And with the passage of time, nobody remembers what the full expression was.

    In Japanese as well, what you say to someone leaving the house "itterasshai!" defies any rational interpretation.

  39. Viseguy said,

    February 6, 2021 @ 12:24 am

    Since I took Latin before Russian, idioms like “счастливого пути” ("[have a] good trip"), “всего хорошего” ("[may you have] all [of the] good" ≈ "good luck"), “всего лучшего” ("may you have] all [of ] the best") felt natural after learning about Caesar's partitive genitive. One is tempted to say that minimally inflected languages like English are poorer by comparison — but then we have, "I wish you all the luck in the world!", which Google Translate lamely, inaccurately renders as "Желаю всем удачи на свете!" How would a native Russian speaker say it? My high-school/college skills rise only to "Большего успеха!", but there must be a better translation, I feel.

  40. Joshua K. said,

    February 6, 2021 @ 12:31 pm

    @Bloix: How are you defining "alliterative" to say that the Hebrew expression "Hazak v'ematz" could be considered alliterative?

  41. Killer said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 3:43 pm

    When someone is going someplace, I sometimes close with "Happy trails."

  42. Josh R. said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 9:06 pm

    Peter Grubtal said:
    "In Japanese as well, what you say to someone leaving the house "itterasshai!" defies any rational interpretation."

    ??? It's literally, "Go and come back." I mean, it's not the most picturesque phrase, but it's straightforward enough, and as good as anything else out there.

    It's also also preceded by the person who's leaving saying, "Itte-kimasu" (I will go and come back), so even more rational in that context.

  43. Sidney Wood said,

    February 8, 2021 @ 9:22 am

    Back to the original problem.
    Have a safe journey (you're coming home)
    Have a good trip (you're going away for a while)

  44. Peter Grubtal said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 12:36 pm

    Josh R.
    if I remember correctly (having let my Japanese go dormant a few years ago) "itte" is not an imperative.

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