In (Brazilian) Portuguese, when it is someone’s birthday, the word used to compliment the person is “parabéns”. Usually parabéns is translated to “congratulations”, but those two words doesn’t have the exact same meaning. The meaning of a word is defined by its usage (as I agree with Skinner’s definition, which is a bit more polished than this), and the word “parabéns” is used whenever you want to compliment a person for something he or she has achieved or done. Usually, the word implies some “responsibility” to the person for that particular achievement. So it is common to say “parabéns” when someone’s got a good grade in a test, for instance. But saying “parabéns” when it is someones birthday sounds a bit odd for me. As far as I know, the person has no responsibility at all for the fact of being born in that specific day, so why saying “parabéns” to the person? To make myself a bit clearer, it would be like saying “well done!” in someone’s birthday. Wouldn’t that sound odd?
It seems that there’s no such problem in using the word “congratulations” in English, though. As it comes from the Latin, “congratulari”, which itself seems to come from “co” (with) and “gratus” (pleasing), it literally means “being pleased with the person” or “feeling the same pleasure the person feels”. The construction is similar to “compassion”, which means “feeling the same as the other person”, usually the same pain. So “congratulations” doesn’t imply any responsibility. Well, to be fair with the word, etimologically speaking “parabéns” didn’t imply responsibility at first. “Parabéns” is the plural of “parabem”, from para-bem, literally “for good”. So it is more like wishing that what happened to the person works “for good”. Like “it is your birthday? I hope that’s for good, not for bad!”. But again, as the meaning is better explained by its use, it still sounds odd.
Or this rant just doesn’t make sense at all. If I said the meaning of a word comes from its use, the common use of “parabéns” in those occasions should establish it as a good word for that particular use. It just makes me uncomfortable that its use isn’t completely coherent in all stances.