What Does “Auld Lang Syne” Really Mean?

Historians call it “the song that nobody knows.” And yet, we’ve all tried to sing it.

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The short answer: “Auld Lang Syne” is the title and key phrase of a 1788 Scots poem by Robert Burns, typically sung on New Years Eve around the world. The phrase “auld lang syne” literally translates to “old long since,” and basically means, “days gone by.” The original, five-verse version of the poem essentially gets people singing, “lets drink to days gone by”—an appropriate toast for the New Year.

The fun answer: Sometimes deemed the most famous “song that nobody knows” by music historians, “Auld Lang Syne” is a piece of the long oral tradition of getting drunk and singing. The nostalgic phrase “auld lang syne” (meaning, literally, “old long since”) has appeared in Scottish song as early as 1588, but it was poet hero Robert “Rabbie” Burns who gave us the version we prefer to butcher every January 1st.

You’ve probably heard Rabbie Burns even if you don’t recognize the name; in addition to “Auld Lang Syne,” Burns penned famous romantic phrases such as “My love’s like a red, red rose that’s newly sprung in June,” and wrote the essential “Address Tae The Haggis”—by far the loveliest poem ever spoken about eating sheep guts. To Scots in particular, Burns is no less legend-among-men than the warrior hero Cúchulainn, having written the unofficial Scottish National Anthem, kickstarting the Romantic movement and, most importantly, giving people lots of triumphant lyrics to slur while they drink. An annual Burns Supper is held around the world on January 25th in his honor (book your haggis ceremony table now!) and, naturally, he has a whiskey cocktail named after him.

When Burns turned in the manuscript of “Auld Lang Sine” in 1788 he was quick to cite the Scottish oral tradition as his muse. “The following song, an old song, of the olden times,” he’s said to have remarked, “has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.” Burns embellished the old ballad with a few verses of his own (mostly adding lines about drinking, like “we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,” and “we’ll take a right good-will draught”), and the ballad quickly became a standard for the Scottish New Year celebration of Hogmanay.

As Scots immigrated around the world, they took the song with them. Eventually North American English speakers translated Burns’ dialect into the common lyrics we know today, made famous in part by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians, who performed the song on New Year’s Eve from 1939 until about 1977. It’s his version that plays after the ball drops in Times Square every year.

This year, when the big ball drops, replace the words “old lang syne” in your head with “days gone by” and you’ll be able to sing along with confidence, knowing the song’s true meaning. And know also, when you refill your glass with a twinkle of nostalgia in your eye, you’re doing exactly what Rabbie Burns would have wanted.

Here are the English lyrics to all five verses of Rabbie’s “Auld Lang Syne.” (We’ve bolded the first verse and chorus, as that’s the only part anyone ever tries to sing.) Happy New Year, and here’s to auld lang syne!

Should old acquaintance be forgot,


and never brought to mind?


Should old acquaintance be forgot,


and old lang syne?

CHORUS:

For auld lang syne, my dear,

for auld lang syne,

we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,

for auld lang syne.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!


and surely I’ll buy mine!


And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,


for auld lang syne.

CHORUS

We two have run about the slopes,


and picked the daisies fine;


But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,


since auld lang syne.

CHORUS

We two have paddled in the stream,


from morning sun till dine;


But seas between us broad have roared


since auld lang syne.

CHORUS

And there’s a hand my trusty friend!


And give me a hand o’ thine!


And we’ll take a right good-will draught,


for auld lang syne.

CHORUS

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