Letter from the Editor: What does Auld Lang Syne Mean?

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Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) at the end of When Harry Met Sally. Courtesy Castle Rock Entertainment.

Noah Glasgow, Editor-in-Chief

Not quite a holiday movie, Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally ends on New Year’s Eve. Harry Burns, finally ready to confess his feelings for Sally Albright, rushes to find her in time for the New Year’s kiss. He finds her, confesses his feelings, and they kiss. But afterwards, he poses a holiday question for the ages: 

Harry, these are excellent questions, and they’re worthy of serious consideration. The meaning of “Auld Lang Syne,” a poem by Scotsman Robert Burns, has been puzzling grammarians, folk singers, and casual carolers since 1788. It’s worth noting that the original lyrics are written in the Scots dialect. They yield such linguistic puzzles as “We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,” which translates to “We two have paddled in the stream.” So by contrast, Harry’s questions about the meaning of the first verse and chorus are fairly mild mannered. “Auld lang syne” translates literally to “old long since,” although to most it simply means “old times” or “long, long ago.”

The first verse proceeds, “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne?”

The chorus replies, “For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

The first verse offers a rhetorical question: Should we allow old acquaintances and memories to slip away? To which the singer suggests that it isn’t quite time to let the memories fade, and that we should ”take a cup of kindness yet, / for auld lang syne.” So certainly Harry is wrong to suggest that “Auld Lang Syne” asks us to forget old acquaintances, as the response to the rhetorical question is a call to remembrance. 

The question and answer structure of these first lines stands in stark contrast to the interpretation of the first verse and chorus that I had held before doing more research: That “should” evokes the conditional mood, essentially serving as an “if,” and that the chorus becomes an implicit “then” in a traditional “if this, then that” conditional phrasing. I.e., if we forget our old acquaintance, then we must take “our cup of kindness” and offer a toast to “auld lang syne.” 

It’s exactly this conditional phrasing that Harry trips over in When Harry Met Sally. He asks, “does it mean if we do happen to forget them, [then] we should remember them…” The conditional interpretation runs afoul of the rules of grammar, however, if we consider Robert Burns’ question mark, which punctuates the second and fourth lines of the first verse. Separating “if” and “then” clauses with question marks creates two incomplete and, frankly, nonsensical sentences. 

We can forgive Harry Burns for leaving his copy of A Writer’s Reference at home. 

Perhaps the most touching interpretation of “Auld Lang Syne” comes from Sally Albright, who adds an implicit “what” to the beginning of “Should auld acquaintance be forgot.” Essentially – what if we forget the past? What then?

This holiday, ask your parents if they own When Harry Met Sally. Then, whatever’s in your cup of kindness, remember to take a sip. Not just for grammar, but for all those memories, forgotten and remembered, that bring us joy.

From all of us at the Chandlery, Happy Holidays & a Happy New Year!

Noah Glasgow

Editor-in-Chief