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The meaning of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and other Scottish words

The following is adapted from the Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins.

Scotland has given English many words—some from the Gaelic language, some from Scots, and others reflecting links to further shores. The Scots poet Robert Burns (1759–96) has also weighed in with memorable expressions.

‘Auld Lang Syne’

Anyone who has ever been to a New Year’s Eve party will have linked arms to the song ‘Auld Lang Syne’, but probably not known what the expression means. Auld lang syne is literally ‘times long past’, and for auld lang syne is ‘for old times’ sake’. The phrase was popularized as the title and refrain of a 1788 song by Robert Burns. Syne is an old Scottish and northern English spelling of ‘since’.


Another word with which Burns has left his mark is wee, meaning ‘small’, which was originally a noun meaning ‘a little or young thing, a child’ and ‘a small quantity’. It is from Old English wēġ or wēġe, which was connected with weigh. The word is particularly associated with the opening of Burns’s poem ‘To a Mouse’ (1786): ‘Wee, sleekit, cowrin’, tim’rous beastie / O what a panic’s in thy breastie!’ Sleekit or sleeked means ‘having smooth, glossy skin or fur’.


Scotland is known as the ‘Land of Cakes’, but the phrase refers to oatcakes rather than to sweet treats. It is also famous for a dish addressed by Burns as ‘Great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race’. This was not a dessert, though, but the haggis. Scots have been eating a dish called haggis, consisting of chopped offal with suet and oatmeal boiled in a casing (traditionally a sheep’s stomach), since the late Middle Ages. The word probably comes from hag ‘to hack, cut’, a Scottish and northern English equivalent of hew.


Burns is also responsible for the name of the tam-o-shanter, a woollen cap of a kind originally worn by ploughmen and other workers in Scotland. It is named after the hero of the poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ (1790), a farmer who, returning home late after a long evening in the pub, came upon witches dancing in a churchyard and was chased by them over a bridge, escaping only because his horse’s tail came off as the leading witch grasped it. Contemporary illustrations of the poem often showed Tam in this kind of cap.


Many Scots words refer to distinctive clothing. Nothing could be more Scottish than tartan, a woollen cloth woven in a pattern of coloured checks and intersecting lines, but the word is probably from Old French tertaine, a kind of cloth that may have got its name because it was imported from the distant east through Tartary, a region that included what are now Siberia, Turkestan, and Mongolia.


The origins of the kilt are less distant. In medieval English kilt was a verb meaning ‘to tuck up the skirt around the body’ that came from Scandinavia. As an item of male Highland dress it is not recorded until around 1750.


You are most likely to see a plaid as part of the ceremonial dress of the pipe band of a Scottish regiment—it is a piece of tartan worn over the shoulder. Although people now associate it with the Scottish Highlands, the plaid was formerly also worn as a shawl or cloak in other parts of Scotland and in the north of England. In the Highlands it was often a person’s principal, if not only, garment. The word may come from Scottish Gaelic plaide ‘blanket’, though it is possible that plaid is an early form of plied: to ply originally meant ‘to fold’.


A brogue was originally a crude kind of shoe worn by the inhabitants of the wilder parts of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. The word comes from Gaelic, though in origin it is Scandinavian and related to breeches. In the early 20th century the brogue emerged as a stout shoe for outdoor pursuits. The use of brogue to mean an Irish or Scottish accent may come from the way that those who wore brogues spoke.

Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins is also available on Oxford Reference.

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