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TWTS: Another New Year's Eve, another round of "Auld Lang Syne"

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If you turned on the TV, attended a party, or visited a store this past week, there’s a good chance you caught at least a few bars of that annually-appreciated classic, “Auld Lang Syne.”

Maybe on New Year’s Eve you even sang along with this familiar farewell tune, perhaps after a few sips of champagne. Or, perhaps following a more generous helping of celebratory alcohol, you mumbled your way through.

Though the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne” contain words known to American English speakers, they’re also peppered with some that aren’t so recognizable, including the title itself. The song becomes even more difficult to understand after the first stanza.

This New Year’s Eve, we found ourselves wondering, what does “Auld Lang Syne” mean and where does it come from?

The song can be traced back to a poem by Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland. Burns wrote down the lyrics in 1788, but he noted that the words were taken from an old man – he didn’t claim them as his own.

The phrase “auld lang syne” itself is first cited in the Oxford English Dictionary in the 1600s. It comes from Scots and literally means something like “old long since.” We can think about it as “old times,” so “for auld lang syne” means “for old time’s sake.”

To hear more about “Auld Lang Syne” as well as our thoughts on the apostrophe in “New Year’s Day,” listen to the audio above.

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
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