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This is What "Auld Lang Syne" Really Means

Few people understand the familiar New Year's tune.

As the ball descends on Times Square, a familiar tune strikes up in the background. "Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind…" But have you ever stopped to wonder what "Auld Lang Syne" is actually about? 

Most people don't know any of the lyrics beyond the first stanza and chorus. For example, would you recognize the verse that starts, "We twa hae paidl'd i' the burn / Frae mornin' sun till dine."  That's actually English! Well, technically it's Scots English from the 1700s.

"Auld Lang Syne" itself is probably even older than that, but 1788 is the year Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote down the traditional lyrics, added some of his own, and sent it off to the Scots Musical Museum for posterity's sake. 

"Auld lang syne" literally means "old long since," or as we'd say in contemporary English, "long, long ago."  The phrase "for auld lang syne" therefore translates to "for old time's sake." 

The first line of the song is a question: Should we forget our old friends? Is it right that we rarely think about things we did together a long time ago?  

The answer is in the chorus:

For auld lang syne, my jo (For old time's sake, my dear)

For auld lang syne (For old time's sake)

We'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet (We'll take a cup of kindness yet)

For auld lang syne (For old time's sake)

The remainder of the lyrics sound as though they're spoken to an old friend. That unusual aforementioned verse actually means, "We two have paddled in the stream / From morning sun 'til dinner time."  The singer is reminiscing about all the fun he and the friend have had together.

The last verse concludes:

And we'll tak' a right gude-willie waught (And we'll take a good-will drink, alright)

For auld lang syne (For old time's sake)

The tradition of singing "Auld Lang Syne" at the turn of the New Year comes to us, as you might expect, from Scottish immigrants who brought the custom with them when they moved abroad. However, it's more traditional to sing the song just before midnight as a reminder that, even though the New Year is coming and we're about to face new delights and challenges, we can't forget where we came from.

Basically, "Auld Lang Syne" reminds us that the future is no good if we don't cherish our relationships from the past and remain in touch with those people who've made us who we are today. That's why "Auld Lang Syne" is also sometimes sung at social gatherings like weddings or funerals.

The song has been translated into languages all across the world, from Danish to Bengali to Japanese. The meaning behind it isn't specific to any one culture; every human being needs a little reminder that, as the times change, what really matters is friendship and connection. And to see how other countries ring in the new year, check out 20 New Year's Eve Traditions From Around the World.  

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Alex Daniel
A journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Read more
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