Prose & SongCorrespondence & Poetry

Burns and Language: Syne

Christmas has passed and it’s very nearly Hogmanay, so grab a dram, dig out your words to ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and get ready for the Bells!

We all know what “auld lang syne” means in this song (‘so long ago’, ‘for old time’s sake’, ‘a long time since’ etc.), but let’s take a closer look at that word Syne – there are one or two interesting things we should know about it.

The word Syne has been used in English and Scots to mean different things relating to time. Firstly, the word has been used very commonly to mean ‘directly/immediately afterwards’ (OED). Burns uses it in this way in ‘The Holy Fair’:

In comes a gawsie, gash guidwife,

An’ sits down by the fire,

Syne draws her kebbuck an’ her knife;

The lasses they are shyer…

This is different from the “for auld lang syne” of the song. It talks about something that is happening immediately, in the present tense. The word was used in this way in writing from around 1400 right up to the early 20th Century, so it’s interesting to think that people all over the world sing the word at least once a year, but hardly ever use it this other sense.

To complicate things further the word Syne has also been used to mean “at a later time” (OED). For instance the phrase ‘soon or syne’ was used frequently by writers from Barbour to Montgomery, to Oliphant and to Crockett. The modern equivalent phrase would be ‘sooner or later’, so with this Syne there is a sense of looking to the future, precisely the opposite of what we mean when we sing Burns’s song.

So, Syne appears in writing to describe something that is happening presently, in the future, as well as the familiar looking to the past. It’s perhaps fitting then that this song has lasted so long; that we have sung it at Hogmanay through the years gone by, we will sing it this year, and we will sing it again soon or syne.



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