Many people around the world ring in the New Year with a rousing chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” and are left wondering what the weird wording actually means.
“Auld Lang Syne” was written by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. The poem was adapted from an old Scottish song and later set to music. And thanks to “Auld Lang Syne,” Burns’ influence has reached far beyond the borders of Scotland.
Most remember the “auld lang syne” part of the song — and Scots emphasize “syne” is pronounced like “sign” not “zine” — but they don’t know the meaning or where it comes from. The phrase “auld lang syne” is Scots, the language of Lowland Scotland and not to be confused with the Highland’s Scottish Gaelic. A rough translation of the phrase is “for old time’s sake.” It is a nostalgic look back at “days gone by.”
While the main first verse and chorus are the most widely sung, there are actually five verses. Most of the lyrics are written with heavy Scottish influence and so can be hard for the untrained ear to understand, but English “translations” of the song can be found (or take the opportunity to practice your Scottish). Most of the lines continue with the theme of friendship, traveling together, enjoying life, extending goodwill and enjoying a good drink.
The theme of looking back makes sense for the new year, but “Auld Lang Syne” is also sung at the end of a céilidh (pronounced kay-lee), a Scottish dance. Dancers join hands and move around in a circle. At some point — there is confusion and debate as to when — the dancers cross hands so that a person’s right hand is held by the person on the left and so on. At the end of the song, everyone moves toward the center of the circle holding hands.
“Auld Lang Syne” is trotted out at funerals, graduations and Burns celebrations. The song has also inspired many other musical works throughout the world, including by songwriters in India, Denmark, Thailand and Japan.
Despite its wide reach and uses, the song is mostly associated with New Year’s Eve, or Hogmanay as it is called in Scotland. So this year you can try singing an extra verse or two, and maybe add in a few dance steps, as you reflect on the past year for auld lang syne.
A bit about Burns
Robert Burns was born Jan. 25, 1759, in Alloway, Scotland. Although he was a practicing poet throughout his life he never wanted to live solely by his pen and so had various occupations, including farming and work as a excise collector (basically a tax collector). His personal life was filled with many love affairs, even after his marriage to Jean Armour. He was known for using Scotland — its land, people and language — in his poetry, which linked him to the Scottish identity and made him an “everyman” figure. He was also well known as a poet in his own lifetime, receiving national recognition for his poems and with people stopping him on the street to discuss his work. He died July 21, 1796, in Dumfries, Scotland, of endocarditis, a heart infection, possibly due to mental and physical stress, at 37 years old. After his death, friends and acquaintances would gather in his memory, which soon became a national holiday celebrating Burns on Jan. 25 called Burns Supper. He is still recognized as the National Poet of Scotland. Other famous works by Burns include “A Red, Red Rose,” “Holy Willie’s Prayer,” “Address to a Haggis” and “Tam o’Shanter.”