auld lang syne

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

The song is traditionally sung at midnight on New Year’s Eve, but what does auld lang syne mean and where does the phrase come from?

Auld lang syne means “times long past” or “consideration/remembrance of old friendships.” The first two words in the phrase are easy to deduce; auld is simply a Scots variant of old and lang a variant of long, but syne is a stumper for most people. Scots is, depending on your perspective, either a dialect of English spoken in Scotland or a language closely related to English that is spoken in Scotland. (Linguistically, there is no distinction between a dialect and a language. The distinction is political.) Scots is not the same as Gaelic, which is a Celtic language, whereas both Scots and English are Germanic languages.

Syne is a shortened form of the Middle English adverb sitthen, meaning “then,” “after,” or “since.” This shortened form was common in Scotland and the north of England. An early appearance of the word is in the poem Patience written by an anonymous poet, dubbed either the Pearl poet or the Gawain poet after two other poems in the manuscript in which it is found. The manuscript (London, British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x) dates to c. 1400 and the poem is believed to have been written c. 1380 in the region around what is now Chester in the north of England. The poem is about Jonah, and the passage in question happens when he is on shipboard during a storm, before he is thrown into the sea and swallowed by the whale:

Tyd by top and bi to þay token hym synne;
In-to þat lodlych loʒe þay luche hym sone.

(Bound above and below, they took him then;
Into that turbulent sea they soon threw him.

Syne was also often combined with lang, sometimes written as one word langsyne, meaning literally “long since” or idiomatically “long ago.” It appears as early as 1513 in a poem “Full Oft I Mvse and Hes in Thocht” by the Scottish poet William Dunbar:

I had bene deid lang syne, doutles.

The full phrase auld lang syne appears by 1666 in a letter from the Earl of Argyll to the Duke of Lauderdale:

Deare lord father, farewell for old long syne.

It was anonymously set in poetry and music sometime around 1701. The broadsheet ballad, the surviving copy of which was printed in 1711, is found in Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS Ry.III.a.10(070), the opening lines of which are:

Should Old Acquaintance be forgot,
and never thought upon;
The flames of Love extinguished,
and fully past and gone:
Is thy sweet Heart now grown so cold,
that loving Breast of thine;
That thou canst never once reflect
on Old long syne.
On Old long syne my Jo,
in Old long syne,
That thou canst never once reflect,
in Old long syne.

Other poets, such as Allan Ramsay, created variations on this anonymous poem, the most famous of which is by Robert Burns, whose version we sing today.


Sources:

“Broadside ballad entitled ‘Old Long Syne.’” The Word on the Street. National Library of Scotland, 2004.

Middle English Dictionary, 2018, s. v. sin, adv.

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. langsyne, adv. (and n.); syne, adv. and conj.

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, September 2017, s. v. auld lang syne, n.

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