origin of the phrase ‘auld lang syne’



Old Long Syne – broadside ballad (probably 1701)



The Scots lang syne means long sincelong ago. Conversely, short syne means a short time agorecently. Especially in recalling old experiences shared with friends, auld lang syne, literally old long-ago, is used as a noun to mean the years of long agoold timesmemories of the past, and for auld lang syne is used to mean for old times’ sake.

This is first recorded in The Scotch Presbyterian eloquence, or, The foolishness of their teaching discovered from their books, sermons and prayers and some remarks on Mr. Rule’s late Vindication of the kirk (1692), by ‘Jacob Curate’ (Gilbert Crokatt and John Monro – floruit 1692-1708):

Another Preaching about God’s sending Jonah to Nineveh, acted it thus, did you never hear tell of a good God, and a cappet* Prophet, Sirs? The good God said, Jonah, now billy Jonah, wilt thou go to Nineveh for ald lang syne†.
* Pettish.
 Old kindness.

In The Heart of Midlothian (1818), the Scottish poet and novelist Walter Scott (1771-1832) wrote:

“I have a friend in office who will, for auld lang syne, do me so much favour.”

The following are the title, first verse and chorus of a broadside ballad probably published in 1701 (source: National Library of Scotland):

An Excellent and proper New Ballad, Entituled,
Newly corrected and amended, with a large and new
Edition of several excellent Love Lines.
To be sung with its own proper Musical Sweet Tune.

Should Old Acquaintance be forgot,
and never thought upon;
The flames of Love extinguished,
and fully past and gone:
Is thy sweet Heart now grown so cold,
that loving Breast of thine;
That thou canst never once reflect
on Old long syne.
On Old long syne my Jo,
on Old long syne,
That thou canst never once reflect,
on Old long syne.

The National Library of Scotland comments:

There have been a variety of airs and lyrics published under the name ‘Old Long Syne’ or ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Debate rages over whether the first tune originated in England, but no firm conclusions have been drawn. There are various versions of the words, the most famous being those composed by Allan Ramsay (1686-1757) and Robert Burns (1759-1796). These versions, however, are both different to this copy. These lyrics were copied across many broadsides and were eventually formally printed by James Watson in 1711.

Robert Burns first sent Auld Lang Syne to his friend and Patron Mrs Frances Dunlop (1730-1815) on 17th December 1788. In this letter, he praises Auld Lang Syne as an old song:

(1855 edition)
Your meeting, which you so well describe, with your old schoolfellow and friend, was truly interesting. Out upon the ways of the world!—They spoil these “social offspring of the heart.” Two veterans of the “men of the world” would have met with little more heart-workings than two old hacks worn out on the road. Apropos, is not the Scotch phrase, “Auld lang syne,” exceedingly expressive? There is an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul. You know I am an enthusiast in old Scotch songs. I shall give you the verses on the other sheet, as I suppose Mr. Ker will save you the postage.
                    “Should auld acquaintance be forgot!”
Light be the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment. There is more of the fire of native genius in it than in half-a-dozen of modern English Bacchanalians. Now I am on my hobby-horse, I cannot help inserting two other old stanzas, which please me mightily:—
                    “Go fetch tome a pint of wine.”

Dr Pauline Mackay, Lecturer in Robert Burns Studies (Scottish Literature) at the University of Glasgow, remarks (source: ‘Robert Burns’ – BBC):

Likewise, in a letter to George Thomson dated September 1793, the poet claimed that he collected the song by noting it down from an old man’s singing. It was eventually published in James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum in 1796.
It is important to remember, however, that Burns frequently amended and improved old songs that he collected prior to their publication. Therefore, it remains likely that Burns played a significant part in shaping this particular version of the song.
‘Auld Lang Syne’ is an extremely nostalgic and sincere expression of friendship. It is for this reason that people all over the world sing this song at social gatherings and most famously on Hogmanay as they reflect on times past and welcome the New Year.


Auld Lang Syne in The Scotish [sic] Musical Museum (1839 edition)


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