What Does "Auld Lang Syne" Really Mean?

meaning of "auld lang syne" for modern listeners

You know the song if you live in an English-speaking country. In the United States, this song is traditionally sung at the stroke of midnight on December 31st every year. You might find yourself in the middle of the wildest, loudest, happiest New Year’s Eve party ever, but yet, when the clock strikes twelve, most of the revelers who were just dancing and drinking and having a high old time are suddenly serious and thoughtful as the poignant words of this ancient tune fall from their lips. Why? What does the song really mean?

“Auld Lang Syne” is an old Scottish song, and the title literally means “old long since.” Like many words and phrases, this one doesn’t translate very well to modern speakers of English. A better translation would be “a long time ago” or “times gone by.” The title and lyrics of the song serve as a reminder that as we face the future, we shouldn’t forget the past.

The original verses were first printed on broadsides by James Watson in 1711, but no one’s sure how old the song really is. Here’s the Watson version:

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.

CHORUS:

On Old long syne my Jo,
in Old long syne,
That thou canst never once reflect,
on Old long syne.

My Heart is ravisht with delight,
when thee I think upon;
All Grief and Sorrow takes the flight,
and speedily is gone;
The bright resemblance of thy Face,
so fills this, Heart of mine;
That Force nor Fate can me displease,
for Old long syne.

CHORUS

Since thoughts of thee doth banish grief,
when from thee I am gone;
will not thy presence yield relief,
to this sad Heart of mine:
Why doth thy presence me defeat,
with excellence divine?
Especially when I reflect
on Old long syne

CHORUS

Apparently, the song didn’t really catch on until Robert Burns, the Scottish farmer-poet, took it upon himself to create new verses of the song, based on the Watkins version. The Scottish bard claims that he learned the words and the tune from an old man, and because Burns was fascinated by the traditions and folklore of his native land and adamant that they be preserved, the poet composed these lines in 1788, and it’s the version that most of us know:

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

CHORUS:

For auld lang syne, my jo,
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.

CHORUS

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pu’d the gowans fine ;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin auld lang syne.

CHORUS

We twa hae paidl’d i' the burn,
frae morning sun till dine ;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin auld lang syne.

CHORUS

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere !
and gie's a hand o’ thine !
And we’ll tak a right gude-willy waught,
for auld lang syne.

CHORUS

My ancestors hailed from Scotland, and I taught Burns for years. After researching much of his old Scottish dialect, I was able to mostly translate the words in his poems. I’m a little rusty after being retired from teaching for several years, but here’s my modern translation of "Auld Lang Syne":

Should old acquaintances be forgotten
And never be remembered?
Should old acquaintances be forgotten,
Along with the days of long ago?

And surely you will have your mug,
And surely I’ll have mine.
And we’ll take a cup and make a toast
To the days of long ago.

We two have run about the hillsides
And picked the pretty flowers,
But our weary feet have wandered far
Since the days of long ago.

We two have paddled in the stream
From early morning until dinnertime,
But wide seas between us have roared
Since the days of long ago.

And here’s a hand, my trusted friend,
And give me your hand.
And we’ll take a large drink and drink
To the days of long ago.

As with most poems, the exact words aren’t as important as the overall meaning. What are these verses trying to tell us? Burns, or the speaker, is obviously addressing an old friend with whom he had spent a lot of time. I think the poet is urging all of us to hold our memories dear and to take the time to reflect on the value of old friends and fond memories of our past.

Next New Year’s Eve, think about the words of “Auld Lang Syne” as you sing them. We shouldn’t live in the past, but we should remember and cherish it. After all, it’s made us into the people we are today.

Do you sing "Auld Lang Syne" at a New Year's Eve party or at other celebrations?
Do you sing "Auld Lang Syne" at a New Year's Eve party or at other celebrations?

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Comments 38 comments

Zakmoonbeam profile image

Zakmoonbeam 5 years ago from Parts Unknown

Funnily enough, I had to Google this yesterday as I had only the vaguest idea! Great Hub :)


RNMSN profile image

RNMSN 5 years ago from Tucson, Az

wonderful as always dear habee!! Ive always loved to try and sing this with the old words and accent/very difficult but fun to try!!


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Zak, sorry - Guess I was a little too slow! lol

RN, I do the same thing! lol


Anaya M. Baker profile image

Anaya M. Baker 5 years ago from North Carolina

Thanks for the translation! Wonderful hub, I've always been curious about just what exactly auld lang syne meant :)


dericox profile image

dericox 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

If these are the actual lyrics for the song, Mariah with her angelic voice and vaunted high notes has taken a lot of liberty to change them up in her attempt at the song.

Great post. Thank you for sharing.


drbj profile image

drbj 5 years ago from south Florida

The words of the song, Holle, may have changed over time but the melody remains the same. And most of us, as you so stated, make an attempt to sing it on New Years Eve. Even if we don't know the words, we just mumble 'auld lang syne' over and over. It's the sentiment that counts!


Sylvia Leong profile image

Sylvia Leong 5 years ago from North Vancouver (Canada)

I love that song. I never knew the words or what it meant. Actually, I rarely hear it. Thanks for this!


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 5 years ago from United States

New Years eve requires that we try to sing the song. I like this hub and your translation of the words and I love the melody of the song. Thanks.


pe555 profile image

pe555 5 years ago from UK

I knew the words to the first verse and the first verse of the chorus but not the rest. We always stop at that. A brilliant hub Habee, Thanks.


Leah Whitehorse profile image

Leah Whitehorse 5 years ago

Lol, I was just thinking the other day that I STILL don't know all the words to this song. Very informative - thanks :-)


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Anaya, glad you enjoyed it!


Klena profile image

Klena 5 years ago from England

Thank you for the information. My uncle moved over to Scotland before he got married and taught me Auld Lang Syne when I was a child.

Thank you for your hard work and posting a translation :)


breakfastpop profile image

breakfastpop 5 years ago

Very interesting hub. I think I sang this on a cruise once, but that's about it.


laughing loon profile image

laughing loon 5 years ago from South Los Angeles

Great job Habee! Something new I knew I needed to know. I always tried to figure it out. Thanks Habee!


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

Truthfully I think the traditional words that we usually sing work better.


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Deri, I guess it's artistic license??


CarolineVABC 5 years ago

Thank you, habee, for sharing this! I've heard and sung this song before, but did not really know the "literal" meaning of it, although I've always liked it:-). Thanks for the translation, too!!!:-)


Malcolm_Cox profile image

Malcolm_Cox 5 years ago from Newcastle, England

We sing that a lot in the UK too. Particularly in Scotland where the verse was written!


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

True dat, drbj! lol


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Sylvia, thanks for visiting!


Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 5 years ago from London, UK

The tune is very catching and makes you think of your friends present and past. It is amazing.


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

I should have read this hub years ago. I'm of Scots decent and a few years ago, some people asked me if I knew what the title meant and I didn't, so I did some research and looked it up. I now know what Auld Lang Syne means but I smile whenever someone asks this question.


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Pam, I love the melody, too!


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

555, I think that's what most people do! lol


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Now you do, Leah! lol


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Cool, Klena! Bet you're a hit at New Year's Eve parties!


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Hi, Bpop! Hope you have a great 2011!


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

You are more than welcome, Loon!


bradclark0833 profile image

bradclark0833 5 years ago from Baltimore, MD

I had always taken it to mean "for old time's sake," which I suppose isn't the worst notion I could have come up with. It's humorous to me that from 18th century Scotland to 21st century America the sentiment hasn't changed that everyone should get drunk off some good toasts on New Year's, whether they are happy toasts to a promising future or somber, sentimental toasts to friends and times that have long since passed. Great, informative article. I enjoyed reading it and am looking forward to seeing more of your material!


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

I agree, Dahoglund. I just wanted folks to know what they were singing! lol


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Caroline, thanks for visiting!


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Malcolm, are you in Scotland?


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Yes, it is, HH. It always kinda chokes me up.


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Lol, Rob. Bet you'll remember it now!


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Thanks a bunch, Brad!


Docmo profile image

Docmo 5 years ago from UK

Ah ha, I've sang this many times at new year parties but was too drunk to contemplate the lyrics! Thanks for the useful hub very illuminating and fascinating history.


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Docmo, I think that's prolly the case with most people! lol


connie mosezar 4 years ago

if the truth be known this as for many many years played at all new year parties by Guy Lombardo and I for 1 mess not hearing it unless I play the tape of it.....

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