What Does “Auld Lang Syne” Mean? The Term (and Lyrics) Explained

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translation and definition of "auld lang syne" from the article
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Even if you’ve never heard the title “Auld Lang Syne,” you’ve definitely heard the song. It’s what plays when the clock hits midnight on New Year’s Eve. Everyone cheers, smooches their loved ones, and hopes for better times ahead, all while that special song plays in the background. What does auld lang syne even mean, and why is it so special on New Year’s?

What Does “Auld Lang Syne” Mean?

If auld lang syne looks or sounds like it’s an entirely different language, that’s because it is.

Auld lang syne (pronounced “ahld lang zine”) comes from Scottish Gaelic. It’s sort of one of those foreign phrases that doesn’t have an exact English translation.

The literal translation of auld lang syne is “old long since,” but the phrase can generally mean “times long past,” “times long ago,” or “old times.”

It’s synonymous with something like “for old times' sake,” a wistful look at friendships or relationships that have since come and gone.

Other spellings and forms include:

  • ald lang syne (Scottish, 1600s)
  • old long syne (Scottish, 1600s-1800s)
  • old lang syne (1700s)
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Usage of “Auld Lang Syne”: It Only Works in the Song

When would you use auld lang syne? Frankly, you wouldn’t, at least not in everyday speech. Unless you’re specifically referencing the song, it’d be weird for you to say “Auld lang syne!” to your old chum or a coworker.

Original Lyrics of “Auld Lang Syne” vs. Modern Lyrics

Which brings us to the song (titled “Auld Lang Syne”). Much like other old folk songs, there isn’t a known record of who sang it first. Similar poems and songs reportedly existed in Scotland throughout the 1700s.

We do know that the version of “Auld Lang Syne” that we all most popularly sing today comes from the poet Robert Burns, which he wrote (based on older, existing versions) in 1788.

“Auld Lang Syne”
(Robert Burns version)

“Auld Lang Syne”
(modern English version)
​​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 dear,
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 pou'd the gowans fine;
But we've wander'd mony a weary fit,
Sin' auld lang syne.

(Chorus)

We twa hae paidl'd in 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 fere!
And gie's a hand o' thine!
And we'll tak a right gude-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.

(Chorus)
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
in days of auld lang syne?

Chorus:
For auld lang syne, my dear
For auld lang syne
We'll drink 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 of 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 us a hand o' thine!
And we'll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

(Chorus)

You’ll be forgiven if you don’t know all those lyrics or if you’ve never even heard them before. In the rendition we sing during New Year’s, most people stick with the first verse and the chorus, repeated over and over, and even that has gone through some changes. 

It’s hard to say why or when those changes came about. The shortening likely came from the fact that people had trouble saying Scottish Gaelic lines like, “We twa hae run about the braes,” while some changes likely came from singing and meter.

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What Does the Song “Auld Lang Syne” Mean?

The song is actually fairly straightforward. Overall, it’s about running into an old friend (or otherwise thinking about an old friend), sharing a drink with them, and reminiscing about old times.

The first verse asks a rhetorical question. Should you forget about your old friends? The chorus suggests that you won’t forget those old friends. Instead, you’ll raise a glass to those old buddies and good times from the past.

The rest of the song reflects those themes, remembering old times of picking daisies as kids and swimming from morning to dinner. Some other Scottish vocabulary you’ll see in the original version:

  • stowp - a bucket or drinking vessel
  • brae - a steep slope, bank, or hillside
  • gowan - general name for wild white or yellow flowers; now typically associated with the daisy
  • frae - from
  • gie - give
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Why Is “Auld Lang Syne” Associated With the New Year?

Most of the confusion with the song comes from its association with New Year’s Eve, a time when most people are imbibing and probably not in the right headspace to think about otherwise straightforward lyrics. How did the song even become associated with New Year’s? The answer starts with Hogmanay.

Hogmanay is the Scottish term for New Year’s Eve and the celebrations involved. Hogmanay was the big end-of-the-year celebration for the Scottish, and as with all good parties, the traditions of Hogmanay eventually made their way into other countries and cultures. That also included songs like “Auld Lang Syne.”

However, what really launched “Auld Lang Syne” into North American popularity was Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians. Starting as a radio show before transitioning into TV, Guy Lombardo and his big band act led the show that rang in the New Year from 1929 to 1976. Every year, Lombardo and his band played — you guessed it — “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight. The rest is history.