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What Does ‘Auld Lang Syne’ Mean?

(Edgar Su/Reuters)

Every year, around the world, people bring in the New Year with a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.” This Scottish song has long been attributed to Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns (1759–1796). And yet,  “Burns wasn’t the sole author,” according to Robert Crawford, Burns’s esteemed biographer (and my former professor at the University of St Andrews). “He was a co-author.”

Literally, “auld lang syne” means literally “old long since,” or essentially “for old time’s sake.” Burns penned the work in 1788, but it was not printed until after his death in 1796. He had claimed that he took inspiration “from an old man’s singing,” though he appears to have also borrowed lines from both Sir Robert Ayton and Allan Ramsay.

Prof Crawford explained its popularity, as its being “a malleable song,” which is “quite unspecific about the nature of friendship.”

Indeed, the meaning behind the rhetorical question at the beginning of the song is not immediately clear:

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

In English:

Should old acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot
And [for] old time’s sake?

Whether old acquaintances should or shouldn’t be forgotten, possibly depends on who you have in mind. . . But best not to overthink!

Happy New Year!

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