This week as 2013 ends, persons around the globe will sing or listen or sob to the music and lyrics of “Auld Lang Syne.” The Scottish folk song and (later) poem by Robert Burns poses the question (edited here for space reasons) “Should old acquaintance be forgot?”
To my knowledge, no authority has ever given a straight answer to that important question. The reason for this lapse, in my opinion, is that the only proper reply is, “Well, now, that depends.” That’s a wobbly, weasely way to address a vital matter, but sometimes life is like that.
I could easily list the names of dozens of old acquaintances that I should not and will not forget. Some of them were esteemed and solid friends. Others were not that close, but their personalities and behavior were easily distinctive enough to lodge these people permanently in my mind.
On the other hand, I can quickly recall the faces, if not the names, of old acquaintances whose fading into dim history has been a blessing for me ever since it first started. On many days of my life, I have boosted my spirits simply by reminding myself of men and women – once close to me – with whom I will never again have to associate. I should add that most of these same persons are probably just as delighted to be distant from my own acquaintance.
To wrap this matter up: No, we should not forget those persons whose presence once graced our lives. And no, we should feel no guilt or compunction about sweeping other persons under the always-waiting rugs of time and memory. How we can accomplish either or both of these tasks will have to wait for other columns, whose arrival I can already picture you pining for.
If you join in the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” this week, be sure to pronounce the “s” sound as in “see” or “since,” rather than the softer “z” sound that we have accepted as standard throughout the years. Your doing so will please linguists in Scottish universities who keep track of such matters.
Robert Burns wrote his immortal poem in 1788. After the words were combined with a traditional folk song, “Auld Lang Syne” soon found its way into Scottish custom. It spread into the United Kingdom and then throughout much of the world. The title’s meaning, in plain English, has varied from “old long since” to “days gone by” and “for (the sake of) old times.” Take your pick.
Today “Auld Lang Syne” is played each year in thousands of settings and occasions across the globe. It supplies the melody for the alma mater of the University of Virginia. It’s a traditional football song in the Netherlands, and is sung at the closing of every international Boy Scout jamboree. In Japan, department stores play “Auld Lang Syne” each night to notify customers that the stores will soon be closing. In November 2009 at the University of Glasgow, students and staff sang the song in 41 different languages.
Perhaps the most tragic and poignant rendering of “Auld Land Syne” took place during World War II, when the Japanese ship, Montivideo Maru, was sunk. The ship had carried 1,053 Australian prisoners of war. As the ship went down, the Aussie soldiers already in the water were heard to sing “Auld Lang Syne” to their doomed comrades still on board the sinking vessel.
For many New Year’s eves – until his death in 1977 – Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians orchestra broadcast the song to millions of radio and TV listeners. Today, whatever our personal feelings about old times and old friends, we should use the new year transition as a reason to think of the good times and valued friends that may await us. As some wise person once said, “The future lies ahead.” And we should all try to be there when it arrives.