“Auld Lang Syne” is a sad song made even sadder because it sounds out of tune, no matter who sings it. And when most people sing it, they do sing it tunelessly. That most people can’t remember the lyrics makes it even more depressing. But even when done to perfection, the song has the essential melancholy of bagpipes.

A literal translation of the title is Old Long Since. A more idiomatic and better translation is Long Ago, or Times Long Gone. It’s a Scots song, an old poem that the Scots poet Robert Burns copied down and added to, setting it to an equally old folk tune. The Scots started the custom of singing it as the old year passed away. Naturally enough, they took the song with them as they emigrated, so the custom is now global wherever Scots or English speaking people live. And when they die, the song is often sung at the funeral.

Here’s an English version of Robert Burns’s Scots dialect:

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

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup !
and surely I’ll buy mine !
And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

You might want a good drink of Scotch at that point. 

Our calendar is a grandchild of the old Roman calendar which divided the year into ten months beginning in spring with March. The months had 38 weeks and each week had what we would call eight days, but because the Romans counted inclusively, they would call nine days. The ten months comprised 304 days of spring and summer and fall; winter was left with a heap of 61 undistinguished days – which seems proper and fitting to me — though eventually the Romans did get around to dividing that period into January and February.

The way the Romans counted dates was to count forward or backward to the next of three particular days: namely the kalends, which was the first of the month, then the ides, which was a day shortly before the middle of the month, and the nones — that was eight days prior to the ides, but because the Romans counted inclusively it was called nones. And, yes, our word calendar derives comes from kalends. As for Roman the ten-month year, the Latin names for seven, eight, nine, and ten were septem, octo, novem and decem. Thus our twelve-month calendar ends with the month called number ten.

When the Romans got around to carving up those 61 winter days into two months they named the first one after Janus, their god of doorways who looked both backward to the past and forward to the future. If they made new year’s resolutions — usually a bad idea — they might have made them in February, a month which had in it a ritual of purification named februum to purge evil and induce cleanliness and good fortune for the city of Rome and its inhabitants. Of course, January and February like all the other months come around again and again, year after year, so if you don’t keep your resolutions or don’t remain purified or don’t have good luck, there’s always next year.

You might want a good drink of Scotch at this point, too.