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Let's Look At The Language

December 31, 2011

'We'll take a cup o' kindness yet, for auld lang syne'

A song that "owns" a particular day of the year is rare. "Happy Birthday to You" rules on the day of anyone's birthday, but that means it's literally sung every single day of the year.

Then there's Thanksgiving, when one might say "the song of the day" is "Over the Meadow and Through the Woods," but really, how many people actually sing that on Thanksgiving? And how many people even know the words past "to Grandmother's house we go"? And of course many would argue that "We Gather Together" and other such hymns are the "real" Thanksgiving songs.

No holiday is associated with music more than Christmas. Indeed, there is so much music -- religious and secular -- connected to Christmas that it fills the air, here, there and everywhere, for weeks and weeks.

This music, which commercially takes off even before Thanksgiving, comes to a grinding halt by the end of Christmas week, when New Year's Eve marks the official closure of the Yuletide Season.

At midnight, when Dec. 31 becomes Jan. 1, one song stands alone, not just as the song of the day, but the song of the moment.

"Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and days of auld lang syne?"

It's funny how we all know this song, a song named "Auld Lang Syne" -- not exactly words we use all the time, or even know what they mean when we're singing them. And yet, somehow we do know.

Sung to an emotional tune that bridges celebratory cheers and breaking down into tears, "Auld Lang Syne" is a great old friend and an anthem for every friend we've ever had. A haunting tribute to the past, it is ultimately more symbolic of what is yet to come rather than what has been. I'm not sure how one little song with peculiar words can do that, but it just does.

Before it became a song, it was a poem, the work of the Scottish bard, Robert Burns, who penned the words around 1788 and later set it to a piece of folk music (perhaps not the same traditional folk song that is now familiar to us).

As is often pointed out, "auld lang syne" can be translated literally to "old long since" (or "old long ago"). An important distinction, however, is seldom mentioned: "old," as used here, is a now-obsolete noun. As such, it meant "age; duration of life or existence," and so "auld" should not be thought of as the adjective "old," but as the noun that is one's age, or life up to this point.

If you think about it, it's an important distinction in the meaning of the poet's words.

Word histories aside, no song has ever, or will ever, own New Year's Eve the way "Auld Lang Syne" has, and will.

Many credit Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians for making it an inviolable American tradition, as it became their signature song from New Year's Eve 1929, when they first played it at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City to ring in the new year. The annual Lombardo rendition in New York City was heard live every year until his final New Year's Eve broadcast from the Waldorf Astoria in 1976. To this day, it is a Guy Lombardo recording of "Auld Lang Syne" that is played when the ball drops in Times Square.

For the past 200 years, Burns' lyrics have made several departures from the original, but nothing so severe as to make them unrecognizable. In fact, the most unrecognizable parts of "Auld Lang Syne" are not the parts we've rewritten over time, but the parts we never sing.

What we customarily know is only the first of five verses, along with the chorus that ends with "We'll take a cup o' kindness yet, for auld lang syne" (which Burns composed to follow each verse). Of the four verses that go unsung, my personal favorite is the last one: "And there's a hand, my trusty fiere! / and gie's a hand o' thine! / And we'll tak a right gude-willy waught, / for auld lang syne." (If state troopers used this as a sobriety test, no one would be driving home tonight.)

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? Email languagewithlindberg@gmail.com. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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