The Toad's Words

Excursus #19

Since this excursion was written New Year's Eve (1998), I began wondering what Guy Lombardo was really saying when he sang "Auld Lang Syne." I then realized that I didn't know what 'auld', 'lang', or 'syne' meant so I was off on a search. Those of you better educated than I, and those from Scotland are probably thinking, "What, surely he jests." But no, I had never really thought about the words before.

Clearly the three words together were made famous because of Robert Burns (more about that later), but now let's see what the individual words mean and whence they hail.

Auld, adjective

Pronounced awld


Since Robert Burns first wrote down Auld Lang Syne in 1788, I thought it would be interesting to look in Samuel Johnson's dictionary of 1755. All that Johnson says is: "Auld - A word now obsolete; but still used in the Scotch dialect." Maybe my Scottish friends out there will tell me if it is still used and how it is pronounced. Apparently the word derives from the Old English ald and became 'old' in the midlands in the 13th century. Another reference says that it is still used in Northern England. It is interesting (at least to me) that Edinburgh, Scotland has the sobriquet "Auld Reekie" which literally means "Old Smokey."

Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?

Lang, adjective, adverb, noun

Pronounced lang


Johnson doesn't even bother with lang. I guess he didn't want to mess with foreign words.

Apparently, 'lang' means 'long' in Scottish.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and days o' auld lang syne.

Syne, adverb

Pronounced sign

Since, later, ago, before now.

Hence 'lang syne' means 'long since' or 'long ago.' Syne is a contracted form of the Middle English word sithen, which means 'since.'

We'll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.

So there you have it - 'Auld Lang Syne' means 'Old Long Since.' So what does that mean?

This is clearly a case where the words work as a phrase to mean something other than the absolute literal sense. My sources have it that 'Auld Lang Syne' means 'old times,' ' long ago in one's life,' or 'the good old days.'

Now getting back to Robert Burns. It is generally assumed that Burns wrote this song himself. However, Burns apparently sent a copy of the original song to the British Museum with the following note: "The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man's singing…" Undoubtedly, the old man was Guy Lombardo.

In a letter to a Mrs. Dunlop, dated 7 December 1788, Burns wrote:

"Apropos, is not the Scots phrase, 'Auld lang syne', exceedingly expressive. There is an old song & tune which has often thrilled thro' my soul. Light be the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired Poet who composed this glorious Fragment! There is more of the fire of native genius in it, than in half a dozen of modern English Bacchanalians."

For you die-hards out there, here is the complete song. I have found at least 10 different variations on the text. Having not seen the original publication, I used my best judgement. Also, interestingly, the order of the verses does not seem to be standardized.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and days o' 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.

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.


We twa ha'e run about the braes, and pou'd the gowans fine;
But we've wander'd mony a weary fit, sin' auld lang syne.


We twa ha’e paidl'd i' the burn, from mornin' sun till dine;
But seas between us braid ha'e 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.

The song describes a scene of farewell as fishermen or sailors set sail. When you know what it means, it is really very touching. So why do we use it as a traditional New Year's Eve song? I have no clue!


Be your pint-stowp = pay for your own drink

braes = hillsides

braid = broad

burn = small stream

dine = dinner-time

fiere = companion

fit = foot

gie's = give me

gowans = daisies

guid-willie waught = friendly draught (good-will drink)

ha'e = have

mony = many

paidl'd = waded

pou'd = pulled

sin' = since

twa = two

Disclaimer: The author, his peers, friends, and colleagues in no way take responsibility for crossed-eyed glances, slapped faces, rejected offers, or any draconian consequences as a result of using The Toad's Words.

Revised: August 27, 2000

Copyright © by Michael L. VanBlaricum, 04 September 2000.

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