Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And ne’er brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And 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.

It’s a tradition, this song we sing each New Year and sometimes earlier in the holiday season. From an early age I sang this song, following along with adults. Even as I grew older I’d sign along with others and never paid much mind to the lyrics which are in a dialect of English long since past. In general as a grew past being a young kid I settled on a belief it was something about not forgetting the past and especially those we’ve known but are no longer around. Either passed away or just long ago friends.

Well into adulthood I decided to learn just where the song came from, and whether my “take” on it was accurate. The terms and words from back in the “old world” don’t always translate into modern English any better than common phrases/sayings in one language translate into another. Anyway, I decided to dig into it and this evening thought I’d share what I learned during a lazy day many years back browsing the internet just looking up random stuff.

CBS News put up an article that does a nice job of explaining both the song’s origins and meaning.  It’s a nice read but I’ll go ahead and give you the short and sweet version. The song’s title is in old Scots language similar to English. (Some of the words/spelling of old English were different than they are today as well) Roughly translated it means “old times since” or (I think more appropriately) “for old time’s sake.” However, as the linked article explains in the Scottish tradition there’s deeper meaning:

“‘Auld Lang Syne’ can be literally translated as ‘Old Long Since,’ but the literal English does not give a sense of what it means to a user of Scots, where it refers to a shared past underpinning the current relationships of a family, community or professional/social association,” Professor Murray Pittock, a literary historian with the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow, told CBS News. “As such it is more evocative, nostalgic and communally unifying than any simple English equivalent.”

So, as it turns out what I came to believe as an adult (and I suspect most of you did too) on my own was to a fair degree accurate. That it’s about remembering old times and relationships with fondness, and sharing nostalgia with others. As for the song’s origins I’d never given that much thought but again, since I’d started looking I wanted to know more. The song we know was from a poem by the well-known (well, if you liked learning poetry in English classes when you were in school) Robert Burns. Wanting to preserve Scottish culture after Scotland and England formed the United Kingdome he toured the country seeking out old songs and yes, poems.

Burns is said to have heard a man singing the tune and wrote it into the poem we sing each New Year’s Eve. Historians believe Burns actually substantially rewrote the lyrics, said to have come from “Auld Kyndness Forgot” which can be traced all the way back to manuscript from 1568. Christine Nelson, who once curated an exhibtion about the song at the Morgan Library in Manhattan told CBS News in back in 2012:

“He didn’t make any secret of the fact that he was doing what he called ‘mending’ these old songs,” Nelson said in her 2012 interview. “So that they could be, you know, given to the public for posterity.”

So how did the song become popular here? Well, we can thank Canadian Band leader Guy Lombardo. The played it on a New Year’s Eve broadcast in 1929 and it became a staple in their act. In 1965, Lombardo told LIFE magazine that he came from a part of western Ontario home to a large Scottish population. In that area, it was traditional for bands to end every dance with “Auld Lang Syne.” Well, the point is the broadcast was a hit and the rest is history. And Tradition.

We’ve seen the song in movies. It’s A Wonderful Life of course which is a Christmas Classic. And there’s that interaction in When Harry Met Sally:

“My whole life, I don’t know what this song means,” Harry, played by actor and comedian Billy Crystal, says in the 1989 movie. “I mean, ‘should old acquaintance be forgot?’ Does that mean that we should forget old acquaintances or does it mean that if we happen to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot ’em?”

“Well, maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them or something,” Meg Ryan’s character Sally responds. “Anyway, it’s about old friends.”

It was seeing that, and thinking of numerous times I’d seen/heard both the question and answer stated (with variations) that I resolved to one day look it up and see what the whole thing was about. It would take a while, but as you know by know one day I did just that. The linked article concludes with I think all that you need to know:

The U.S. Embassy in Italy maybe explained it best in a blog post: “The lyrics of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ pose the question: How do we best remember the memories, friends and experiences of years before? The answer, Burns tells us, is to ‘share a cup of kindness yet’ as we journey into the new year.”

Here’s wishing everyone a safe and Happy New Year tonight.

(2024 will be one helluva year, so whether you enjoy a bit of pleasantness with friends, or if like me spend the evening along drink a toast to good memories of pleasant times, places and people past and hope the future holds more you can toast to on New Year’s Eves hence)

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  1. Lallans (or Braid Scots) developed at the same time as English but from slightly different toots. There were two distinct Anglo-Saxon settlements in Britain – the southern one (King Alfred et al) and a northern one. The southern Anglo-Saxon eventually became English, while the northern became ‘Lallans’ (Lowland Scots). They’re very similar, but are actually two different languages (in this neck of the woods, Lallans is referred to as ‘Ulster Scots’)

    Be that as it may, you could also pick up another one of Rabbie Burns’ verses (also set as a song)

    “We were bought and sold for English gold,
    Such a parcel of rogues in the nation.”

    (change ‘English’ to ‘Russian’ for something more apposite to your situation)

    • Any time I was in Scotland, it was referred to as ‘Gaelic’. ‘Irish’ meant the Irish language (NOT Gaidhlig).

      As for the very North – don’t forget that the Orkneys and Shetlands were Danish and were given to Scotland as part of a wedding present.

      Oh and there were never any people called ‘Vikings’ – there were Danes and Norse (Norwegian) who went ‘viking’. It’s a verb meaning ‘going raiding’.


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