Thursday, December 26, 2013

Auld Lang Syne

Auld Lang Syne

So what the heck does auld lang syne mean, anyway? People all over the English speaking world raise glasses, smooch, or eat a dozen grapes while singing or listening to that enigmatic song.

We of the English-speaking world have the Scots to thank for the phrase, & Robert Burns to thank for popularizing it (though others had put the phrase to paper before Burns).

Auld lang syne is translated in several ways, among them: times long ago, times long since, old times gone… At the end of the year we “raise a cup of kindness to” all the events that preceded the toast. Whether the events were good or bad, the song entreats us to look upon them kindly, then make our way into the new year wiser for having experienced those times.
Auld was an Anglo-Saxon term that means old. Born in the 1300s, it survives today, still spelled auld in Scottish. Its Anglo-Saxon root meant aged, antique, primeval, experienced, or adult. Auld has its roots in a verb meaning to grow or nourish. Auld’s relatives include the words elder, eldest, alto, alumni, adult, adolescent & alumnus. Though many languages make a clear distinction between adjectives used for “old” inanimate things & those used for “old” sentient beings, auld (& its modern pal, old) can be applied to both.

Lang translates to long, something that extends considerably from end to end. It also showed up in English in the 1300s. Its relatives include along, lunge, lounge, linger, prolong, elongate, longitude, & longing, & ling (as in ling cod).

Syne means since. Syne showed up in Scottish in the 1300s. Oddly, it took a couple of centuries for its equivalent, synnes or syns, to appear in English, and another century or so for those spellings to morph into since. It means from the time when, or as a consequence of the fact that. Over time its relatives appear to have faded away, leaving it an etymological orphan.

May you have superb good fortune this year, especially when it comes to looking kindly upon past events & looking forward to an auspicious future.

Feel free to leave a comment if inspired to do so.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Etymonline. & Wordnik


  1. Thank you for the explanation of this lovely pronouncement. I love the idea of "raising a cup of kindness" to all events of the past year, the good and the not so good. Happy New Year!

  2. Christine,
    I raise a metaphorical cup of kindness in your general direction.
    Happy New Year.

  3. I had to think for a moment to understand "alto"'s inclusion in the etymological descendants of "auld". I suppose an alto voice is primarily associated with mature women, rather than girls.

    A belated Merry Christmas to you, sir, and the Happiest of New Years!

  4. Hi Rachel6,
    Thanks for coming by. Alto actually split off the al- tree before auld did. It came from "to nourish, to grow" & because things grow tall or high, al- also became connected with high notes. Originally, alto was applied to high men's voices. Life is funny.
    Happiest of New Years to you, too.

  5. I knew it meant "old times' sake" but I never knew why. Thanks for the enlightenment! Very interesting about auld and altos.

  6. Ahoy Anne - Here's hoping you're feeling more like your usual self (I'd say "auld self" but that could be misinterpreted. Just recently I enjoyed an NPR broadcast of a stunning Chanticleer Christmas performance -- there are some guys with "auld alto" voices.