The Grammarphobia Blog

Are congratulations in order?

Q: Was Pat really just a clue in the New York Times crossword? I saw it in the International Herald Tribune. I was in Sardinia over the weekend, and took the rare opportunity to work the crossword. Does this mean congratulations are in order? Or perhaps I should ask, where does that expression come from?

A: Yes, Pat was indeed a clue in a recent Times crossword (Patricia who wrote “Woe Is I”). It was 2 down in the Feb. 11 puzzle. The answer was her last name, minus the apostrophe (OCONNER).

In fact she’s been a clue—or, rather, part of one—in several other crosswords in the Times and elsewhere.

The answer is usually “ISI,” the second and third words of her book Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.

Little did we realize back in the mid-’90s when the book was named that the letter combination “ISI” would fill a much-needed gap (as the saying goes) for crossword puzzle writers!

As for “congratulations are in order,” the expression seems to have originated in the United States in the 19th century.

The earliest appearance in the New York Times archive is from a Sept. 20, 1886, profile of Capt. R. B. Forbes shortly after his 82nd birthday. Forbes introduced double topsail yards, a rig that made it easier to handle a sailing ship.

The article in the Times refers to “the anniversary of his birth, when congratulations are in order.”

A Google Timeline search produced several other examples of the expression from earlier in 1886. The first one is from the April 2,1886, issue of the Adrian (Mich.) Weekly Press:

“Rev. Wilson, of the Christian church, returned from Ohio last week, bringing with him his new wife. Congratulations are in order. They expect to be keeping house in about two weeks.”

The noun “congratulation” entered English in the late 16th century, adopted from similar words in French or Latin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest citation in the OED is from Sir John Harrington’s 1591 translation of the Italian poem Orlando Furioso, by Ludovico Ariosto: “Only Gradassos faint congratulation, / Makes men surmise, he thinks not as he saith.”

The use of the plural “congratulations” for expressing compliments first showed up in the early 17th century. We especially like this early citation from Samuel Johnson’s 1749 tragedy Irene: “That fawning Villain’s forc’d Congratulations.”

But why, you may ask, do we say congratulations are “in order” when we mean they’re appropriate or proper or fitting?

When the word “order” entered English in the early 13th century (via the Anglo-Norman and Old French ordre), it referred to a rank in a hierarchy, especially any of the nine grades of angels in medieval Christianity, according to the OED.

Early in the next century, the word came to mean a grade or rank in the Christian ministry or ecclesiastical hierarchy.

But by the 14th century the word had broken away from its church origins and was being used in a more general way to refer to any rank or row or series.

It wasn’t until the mid-19th century, though, that the phrase “in order” came to mean “appropriate to or befitting the occasion; suitable; called for; correct.”

The OED says this usage is of US origin and its first citation is from a report on an 1850-51 constitutional convention in Ohio: “I have prepared a resolution … and whenever it may be in order I shall offer it.”

The dictionary doesn’t have any published references for “congratulations are in order,” but it does have an apologetic version of the expression from around 1861.

Here’s the citation, from Theodore Winthrop’s novel John Brent (circa 1861): “If the gent has made a remark what teches you, apologies is in order.”

Winthrop was one of the first Union officers killed in the Civil War. His novel was published posthumously.

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