Almost every New Year's Eve for at least 45 years, I've joined hands with my fellow boys and girls, men and women, sometimes close friends, sometimes very nearly total strangers, and sung "Auld Lang Syne."
This year, Jeannie and I spent New Year's Eve at a pub in Santa Monica called the Darwin, where Rosie McHargue and a group of his always-fine jazzmen played our kind of jazz, which means most of the songs were written between about 1910 and 1955. At midnight, the jazzmen struck up "Auld Lang Syne," and we joined hands or arms with convivial strangers and vocalized somewhat bibulously. It was great fun. The next morning, as I was clearing my head of last year's lees and dross, I started thinking about the strange paradox that is "Auld Lang Syne."
Here we have a Scottish song, about 200 years old, and I'll bet that fewer than one "Auld Lang Syne" singer in 10 knows what auld lang syne means. We all sort of intuit the meaning, because we're standing around holding hands, feeling nostalgic--for what, we don't know. Seldom for the passing of the old year, I think. The common sentiment, in my experience, is more often than not, "Thank God that year's over and done with!"
In fact, auld lang syne is fairly meaningless: literally, "old long since"; figuratively, "long ago," and, still more figuratively, "the good old times."
The song seems to have lost some of its popularity during the past 10 or 15 years. It used to be standard for every New Year's Eve gathering, and everyone, of whatever national origin, would suddenly become as Scottish as Robbie Burns himself. People whose backgrounds were Swedish, Armenian, Italian, Chinese, Russian--you name it--would join together, tr-r-rilling away: ". . . an' never-r-r br-r-rought to min' . . ."
I called a few friends to check my own perceptions. All agreed that "Auld Lang Syne" is neither sung as often as it used to be nor understood by most of those who've sung it.
The second verse is where I've always started spreading on the tr-r-r-ill with a 30-pound claymore: "Sae he-e-e-r-r-r-re's a han', ma tr-r-roosty fren' / an' gi'e's a hand o' thine, / An' we'll tak' a r-r-right guid williewaught for-r-r Auld Lang Syne!" One of the friends I called was Henry Gibson. I asked him if he knew what a right guid williewaught is. If you know anything at all about Scotch or whiskey or the Scots or Burns or wee doch-an-dorises, you surely have a solid hunch that a right guid williewaught is a good stiff slug of highland dew. Henry knew about all that, so he said he thought some smart caterer to the wee doch-an-doris crowd could make a bundle with a Williewaught Cooler, or a Williewaught Lite.
It wasn't until 1988 that I took the time to find out why we sing about a right guid williewaught. This New Year's Day, I looked it up in my Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary. I chose that dictionary because it's published in Edinburgh, and I figured that if anyone should know about williewaughts, it would be the lexicographers of Edinburgh.
Here's what Chambers says: "williewaught . . . (Scot.) n. a deep draught. From misunderstanding of Burns, Auld Lang Syne , . . . 'a right guid willie (or guid-willie) waught' (where 'guid willie' means 'good will'), a generous and friendly draught."
So a guid-willie waught is a goodwill drink. It figures that Burns, who wrote "Wee, sleekit, cow'rin', tim'rous beastie, / O, what a panic's in thy breastie!" would change "good will" to "guid-willie," thus confusing a lot of song publishers who thought he was talking about a good williewaught, instead of a good-willie waught. Most of my dictionaries explain "williewaught" as an illegitimate child, the bastard offspring of "guid-willie" and "waught."
The best way to make a Williewaught Cooler is to pour Scotch over rocks. For a Williewaught Lite, add water. Now, what did I do with that highland dew?