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About That Song We Sing at Midnight Even Though No One Knows What It Means…

Friday, December 31, 2010, 12:12 EST Leave a comment Go to comments

(Update: Click here to listen to seven different renditions of “Auld Lang Syne” in a separate window/tab.)

At midnight all around the world, revelers will welcome 2011 by singing “Auld Lang Syne.” I have sung it on occasion, even though I had not the first idea what the title phrase means. In that respect, I am probably like most people. Thank God and Google that we no longer have to live in such dark ignorance.

Search for the meaning of “auld lang syne” and you’ll come up with “times long past,” “days long ago,” (Merriam-Webster defines it as “the good old times”; Free Online Dictionary has “old times; times past, esp those remembered with affection or nostalgia.” Whatever the exact translation, the phrase is Scots.

Robert Burns

Robert Burns, Bard of Scotland

The song lyrics come from a poem written by the great Robert Burns and has many more verses than just the one with chorus that we sing. The Wikipedia entry notes that Burns wrote it down but that it was already an old song. (I can’t confirm the sourcing on that, since the web site the quote was taken from appears to be down.) In any case, I found enough other online attributions that I believe we can safely say that Burns, even if not the first to come up with the verse, was the first to commit it to paper. In either case, it seems clear that the words have Scottish roots.

Clan Ross Tartan

LOML's clan tartan

I have a Scottish aunt by marriage, once waitressed at a Rabbie Burns Supper (the Parade of the Haggis was a bit bizarre), and watched about 10 minutes of Braveheart on cable TV. My only other connection to anything or anyone Scottish is the love of my life, who is of Scottish ancestry on his father’s side. Which, frankly, is enough to get me interested in Scottish stuff. I’m a sap.

But back to the poem whence came the song. My web search turned up many versions with slight spelling variations and different orders of the stanzas. I’m going with the most authoritative online source I know of, Bartleby.com, which cites this version from The Oxford Book of English Verse:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
  And never brought to min’?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
  And days o’ lang syne?

We twa hae rin about the braes,
  And pu’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d monie a weary fit
  Sin’ auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl’t i’ the burn,
  Frae mornin’ sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
  Sin’ auld lang syne.

And here ‘s a hand, my trusty fiere,
  And gie’s a hand o’ thine;
And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught
  For auld lang syne.

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp,
  And surely I’ll be mine;
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet
  For auld lang syne!

    For auld lang syne, my dear,
      For auld lang syne,
    We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet
      For auld lang syne.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Happy New Year.

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Categories: holidays, literature
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