Congratulations.  Now there’s a word we misuse a lot.

‘I’m getting married!’ ‘Congratulations!’  Why?  Why should this be cause for congratulations?  Is it a good thing?  Half of all married couples end up divorced.  (The other half just couldn’t be bothered.)  Is it an achievement?  There are no qualifications except being a certain age.  Which generally happens without any effort.  So you’re entering into a legal contract with another person.  Big deal.  Bet you haven’t even read the contract.  So you’re going to a church for some obscure sacrament.  What, Christmas and Easter wasn’t enough?

What’s getting married really about?  Proof you’re not gay after all.  Proof that you’re all grown up, gonna settle down, maybe start a family (like having a kid means you’re no longer a kid is the logic, I guess).  Proof that someone somewhere somehow found you loveable long enough to agree to marriage.  Yeah right, whatever.

‘I’m pregnant!’ ‘Congratulations!’  What?  Again, is this necessarily a good thing?  ‘Cause it can seldom be called an achievement.  I mean I’m sure you have succeeded at sexual intercourse before.  So now you got lucky.  Should we congratulate for luck?

‘I won the lottery!’  ‘ Congratulations!’   It sounds right.   But it sure takes the wind out of the congratulations we give to the person who wins a triathlon or a Beethoven competition.


1 comment

  1. Dictionary definitions I just looked at describe congratulating as expressing praise or pleasure over an achievement, good fortune or a special occasion.

    I don’t love all instances of this claim, but I’ll get all Wittgenstein and say it anyways: meaning is use. When it comes to definitions, I do think word use is important.

    Usually when you congratulate someone on a pregnancy, it’s because they wanted to get pregnant, usually because becoming a parent was a goal in their life. So, in a sense, it’s an achievement but not necessarily a difficult one (though in the context of parenting a child with a suitable partner and in a secure environment, it is). I doubt that I would congratulate a teenager whose pregnancy was accidental. Regardless, yes, people do congratulate for luck, and it’s covered in the dictionary definition of the term.

    That’s not to say there isn’t a normative argument that we ought to be more restrictive, but strictly speaking, it’s not a misuse of the term.

    With regards to the lottery, again, it’s an expression of pleasure at someone’s fortune. No, it’s hardly equivalent to a skill-based achievement, but then I don’t think most people are so dumb as to equate the two, or to be unable to use the same word to various degrees. It’s not wrong to say “I’m sorry for your loss” to someone who loses a pet on the view that it cheapens another use that was directed at someone who lost their entire family. It’s not wrong to say that Arizona is hot because the sun is hotter.

    I left marriage for last, because you departed from your point to talk about marriage. I’ll highlight your quip that “the other half just couldn’t be bothered” to get divorced. Surely, you jest, but because I still feel compelled to dispel your generalizations, counterexamples include myself, my parents and other friends and family members whom I’m reasonably confident are happy with their marriages. Of course, I know others who are not, which is to say that while some relationships reach the (optional) stage of marriage, not all of those that do succeed. This is why we also say “congratulations” on anniversaries, which is to say, “well done on the choice of a partner, because not everyone makes it this far, and you two seem happy, which we prefer”.

    By your own admission, you don’t understand marriage, which is fine. You’re not really on the right track: I hope you don’t mind me saying, your guesses are really bad. Maybe some people marry for those sorts of reasons. No doubt, people do get married for bad reasons, there are married couples that shouldn’t be married, there are people who enter into it far to lightly. That’s not to say that there’s something wrong with getting married, though I imagine that most couples who are good at it don’t need to actually be married to stay together.

    Some just enjoy the symbolism of solidifying the commitment, the perceived security of explicitly stating the stability of the relationship or the fun of the tradition (I don’t know, we had an awesome party when we got married… we lived together for years before, so the only thing that really changed was the party, which I’m glad we had. That, and tax benefits). In fact, I do know a couple that got married exclusively for financial reasons. They are a good couple and would probably be together anyways, but that wasn’t the appeal of marriage for them, and for sure they read their contracts carefully.

    So, yeah, when friends of mine get married I congratulate them, because marriage can be great. I’m not sure what I’d say if a close friend entered into a marriage that was obviously a mistake, but until that happens I offer congratulations to my married friends, who I expect to have long and happy marriages.

    I also offer congratulations to friends who start new businesses, because that’s a fun and exciting thing to do which can pay off well, or at least in a life lesson. More to the point, the fact that entrepreneurs have a high failure rate, or that someone else won an Olympic medal or went to the moon, does not diminish the meaning of my utterance.

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