Thursday, December 29, 2005

Auld Lang Syne

Yet how true a poet is he! And the poet, too, of poor men, of hodden-gray, and the Guernsey-coat, and the blouse. He has given voice to all the experiences of common life; he has endeared the farmhouse and cottage, patches and poverty, beans and barley; ale, the poor man's wine; hardship, the fear of debt, the dear society of weans and wife, of brothers and sisters, proud of each other, knowing so few, and finding amends for want and obscurity in books and thought. What a love of nature! And, shall I say it?, of middle-class nature. Not great, like Goethe, in the stars, or like Byron, on the ocean, or Moore, in the luxurious East, but in the homely landscape which the poor see around them; bleak leagues of pasture and stubble, ice, and sleet, and rain, and snow-choked brooks; birds, hares, fieldmice, thistles, and heather, which he daily knew. How many "Bonny Doons," and "John Anderson my Joes," and "Auld Lang Synes," all around the earth, have his verses been applied to! And his love songs still woo and melt the youths and maids; the farm work, the country holiday, the fishing cobble, are still his debtors to-day.

Ralph Waldo Emerson on Robert Burns: A Tribute (1859)

Whenever we meet a Holy Willie or fall in love with our Bonie Jean, Robert Burns (1759-1796) comes alive to us through the centuries. He leaps out of the page and lives on in all the best of the lines he wrote. Writing from the the heart using the universal language of love, compassion and friendship, Auld Lang Syne has become the traditional song among people through out the world for bidding farewell to the old year and hailing the new. It is the evidence of the success with which Burns was able to present the theme of passing time through a context of remembered friendship. By mixing memory with desire he cleverly creates a bittersweet moment. How relevant it has become to the poignancy of at once saying goodbye to old and bringing in the new. Through a long and convoluted evolution Burns was able to capitalize on this idea where the poem and the song has become one of the great expressions of the tragic ambiguity of man's relation to time. All this in his folk idiom that rings pure as the birth of the New Year to which it is chorused.

Though he never claimed authorship, he wrote that what he had created was indeed preserved from earlier versions. In a letter dated December 17th 1788, Burns described to a friend by the name of Mrs Dunlop:

'Your meeting which you so well describe with your old schoolfellow and friend was truly interesting. Out upon the ways of the world! They spoil these 'social offsprings of the hear'. Two veterans of the 'men of the world' would have met with little more heart-workings than two old hacks worn out on the road. Apropos, is not the Scotch phrase Auld lang syne exceedingly expressive? There is an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul. You know I am an enthusiast in old Scotch songs. I shall give you the verses on the other sheet... Light be the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment! There is more of the fire of native genius in it than in half a dozen of modern English Bacchanalians.'

Enclosed in his letter to her on another sheet were the words to Burns' first version of Auld Lang Syne.

With a few alterations, the poet sent a copy of the song to a publisher named Johnson, who delayed publishing it, perhaps as scholars speculate, it was because the air to which it went had already appeared in print with words by another, beginning: 'Should auld acquaintance be forgot.'

In September 1793, Burns forwarded the publisher Johnson a third copy of his manuscript of the song with some minor changes. In the his letter to him Burns commented:

'One song more, and I have done, 'Auld lang syne'. The air is but mediocre; but the following song - the old song of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript, until I took it down from an old man's singing - is enough to recommend any air.'

And yet to another friend around the same time he relates:

'Light be the turf,' he says, 'on the breast of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment! There is more of the fire of native genius in it than half-a-dozen of modern English Bacchanalians.'.....'Apropos, is not the Scotch phrase Auld Lang syne exceedingly expressive? This old song and tune has often thrilled through my soul.'

Fortunately Mr. Johnson reconsidered his decision and published the song in the fifth volume of the Museum, appearing about six months after Burns' death.

By the end of the 1700's the tune or Scottish Air, as it is called, was discovered to be derived from a common Scots country dance. The melody so common that it had been presented in no less that nine different airs ranging over a period ninety years. While it is also closely related to the melodies of 'O Can you labor lea' and 'Coming thro' the rye' which appear to be derived basically from the same strathspey (or Scottish dance), as 'Auld Lang Syne'. While there were many ballads, sermons, street songs and even a couple of political ballads, all dating from the mid fifteen hundreds, there is little doubt that Burns was aware of these older poems.

Did you know that the word syne is pronounced just as it is written and not zyne? While millions of people will be singing this poem on the New Year's Eve, here is a small glossary in hopes some of us might get the words right! With a few phrases and words translated, the good nature and fellowship of this drinking song shine through:

  • auld;old
  • lang;long
  • syne;since
  • auld lang syne ; days of long ago
  • pint stowp ; tankard
  • be your pint-stowp: pay for your pint-cup
  • burn: stream
  • dine: dinner
  • braid: broad
  • frere: friend
  • twa hae rin: two have run
  • braes: hillsides
  • pou'd ; pulled
  • gowans ; daisies
  • mony ; many
  • fitt ; foot
  • paidl'd ; waded
  • dine; dinner-time
  • willie-waught ; draught
  • gude-willie waught: a big swig

Here's a translation from one of the many on line and one I liked best:

Old Long Since

tr. William Curran

Should old acquaintance be forgot,

And never brought to mind;
Should old acquaintance be forgot,

And days of old lang syne.

For old lang syne, my dear,

For old lang syne,
We will take a cup of kindness yet,

For old lang syne,

We two have run about the hills,

And pulled the daisies fine.
We've have wandered many a weary foot,

Since old lang syne.


We two have paddled in the burn (Stream),

From morning sun till dine,
But seas between us broad have roared,

Since old lang syne.


And here's a hand my trusty friend,

And put your hand in mine.
We'll take a right good willie-waught (Drink),

For old lang syne.


And surely you'll lift up your glass,

For surely I'll lift mine,
And we'll drink a cup of kindness yet,

For old lang syne.


The song crept into America's consciousness as early as the Civil War when the melody was sung by soldiers and played on piano by amateur musicians. Then in 1928 a dance band called the Royal Canadians led by a young man by the name of Guy Lombardo gave New Year's Eve its enduring theme song. As a teen Lombardo played in a band that worked the heavily Scottish environs of London, Ontario, his hometown. It was traditional in those communities to end an evening with 'Auld Lang Syne.' He tells the story of how he came to use this signature song. Because one of his radio sponsors was Robert Burns Panatella Cigars, "and seeing that Robert Burns wrote 'Auld Lang Syne,'" Lombardo explained, "we sort of incorporated that into our program." Lombardo died in November 1977, by the time he had rang out his '76 gala, he had logged forty eight New Year's Eve broadcasts -- first on CBS radio and then, from 1956, on its sister TV network.

Succeeding the brilliant success of his poetry in his twenties, Robert Burns devoted the last ten years of his tragically short life to collecting, writing and re-writing many songs of his homeland. It was his deepest love affair, and if we are to believe his words to Mrs. Dunlop then it stands to reason that indeed the forces of Nature have honoured his request, 'the turf must by lying lightly upon the breast' of an unknown poet of whose intermediary version not a trace can be found and no matter the origins of Auld Lang Syne, it was Robert Burns' magic that turned it into one of the most beloved and popular songs ever written. It's traditional to cross arms left with right and right with left in a cozy hug of friendship at the third stanza. So while you're rockin' in the New Year taking hands and making acquaintance with humankind around the world; raise a song at the stroke of midnight and just bear a thought and 'tak a cup 'o kindness yet' for the genius who created it without whom New Year's Eve just would not be the same.

Till we meet again. -Guy Lombardo (1902-1977)

Analysis of Burns Poems
Accessed Dec 31 2001

The Burns Encyclopedia
Accessed Dec 31 2001
Next week to be 25th New Year's Eve without Guy Lombardo
Accessed Dec 31 2001

Blair, Bob
Accessed Dec 31 2001

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Davy Jone's locker

    "I should like to see him try it; I'd give him such a pair of black eyes that he wouldn't dare to show his face in the admiral's cabin again for a long while, let alone down in the orlop there, where he lives, and hereabouts on the upper decks where he sneaks so much. Damn the devil, Flask; so you suppose I'm afraid of the devil? Who's afraid of him, except the old governor who daresn't catch him and put him in double-darbies, as he deserves, but lets him go about kidnapping people; aye, and signed a bond with him, that all the people the devil kidnapped, he'd roast for him? There's a governor!"

Zealous bookworms are well acquainted with many of the plentiful and fantastic maritime fables. From those about Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, and Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea to the modern Patrick O'Brien sea adventures. The best booklovers know that one of the central characters in each of these books is the ship itself--her design, rigging, deck, mast, bulwark, spars, and rudders. Whether the ship is a whaling boat or a skiff slipping through the Gulf Stream or a fearless American vessel rounding the Horn or marooned in the horse latitudes, that craft is an essential part of the narrative. Yet there is an additional personality in these sea stories, hardly ever given a voice to but forever, and for all time at hand: Davy Jones. Davy and his locker are regular escorts of all those who sail the bounding main leaving in his wake a graveyard of sailors and ships that sleep for eternity in the beds of the earth's vast oceans.

No one's really sure who Davy Jones was but through tall tales and sea shanties the name has become personified as the bottom of the sea and his locker is an emblem for the grave of all those who perished at sea. First recorded in 1726,Davy Jones eventually became known as the spirit of the sea. In 1751 his name was mentioned in Chapter 15 of Tobias George Smollett's The Adventures of Peregrin Pickle described as an portentous and terrorizing fiend who "presides over all the evil spirits of the deep, and is often seen in various shapes, perching among the rigging on the eve of hurricanes, shipwrecks and other disasters." By 1803 sailors were referring to Davy Jones's locker as nautical slang the "bottom of the sea."

Like most timeless sea sagas, theories abound as to the beginnings of the phrase. Some say he was a sailor or pirate who died at sea, while others declare that Davy Jones was the name of the barkeep in the ballad 'Jones Ale Is Newe,' and his frightful locker may have been where he stocked his ale. This sixteenth-century pub owner in London was said to run a tavern where unsuspecting sailors were drugged and put in lockers, only to awaken on a ship at sea and discover they had been forced into the Navy by a press gang. A press gang is unit of men under the command of an officer authorized to force men into military service. Another expert fathoms further:

    "Since at least 1750 `gone to Davy Jones's locker' has been used by sailors to indicate death...Smollett wrote: `I'll be damned if it was not Davy Jones himself. I know him by his saucer eyes, his three rows of teeth and tail, and the blue smoke that came out of his nostrils.' This same Davy Jones, according to mythology of sailors is the fiend that presides over ... disasters to which seafaring life is exposed, warning the devoted wretch of death and woe."
Several experts say that Davy may be a deviation of the West Indian/African word duppy, meaning spirit or ghost and propose that the telltale D and V suggest devil. Others put forward that the Jones is from Jonah. Jonah is both sailor slang for bad luck and a biblical allusion. In thelatter half of the Old Testament, Jonah is a narrative telling about an Israelite prophet who resisted a divine call to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh, was swallowed and vomited by a great fish, and eventually carried out his mission. When Jonah tries to escape aboard a ship. The ship encounters troubles at sea and the crew casts lots to discover who is the source. When Jonah is revealed he confesses his disobedience to God and the crew tosses him overboard. While the story places the emphasis on God's mercy by sparing Jonah's life, from the point of view of the ship's crew he is also one believed to bring bad luck.

Salty Dog Talk: The Nautical Origins of Everyday Expressions by Bill Beavis and Richard G. McCloskey (1983), state that Davy Jones Locker is "the final resting place for ships that sink, articles lost overboard and sailors who drown. Thus it became the sailor's phrase for death." Another conceivable account offers that while Jonah may have been the source for Jones, Davy could have come from the patron saint of Wales St. David who is frequently appealed to by Welsh sailors:

    Jonah was indeed considered bad luck to sailors aboard the vessel on which he was attempting to flee God's wrath and the phrase was first recorded in Captain Francis Grose's `Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue' (1785) as `David Jones' Locker, which lends still more support to the Welsh patron saint theory. The locker in the phrase probably refers to an ordinary seaman's chest, not the old pub owner's mysterious locker."
    Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).
The expression has been part of sailor slang for over two centuries and today Davy Jones is seen as the embodiment of the devil who rules over the evil spirits of the sea. From whales of tales about men and the sea to bedeviled barkeeps and saints of Wales, one thing is certain Davy Jones and his locker is chock full of colorful history and superstition. And somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea lies the truth of the origins of Davy and his dreaded locker wherever dead men tell no tales.


The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.
Jul 04 2003.

Davy Jones' locker. Dictionary of Eponyms, Manser. Retrieved 03 July 2003, from xreferplus.
Accessed Jul 04 2003.

Online Etymology Dictionary
Accessed Jul 04 2003.

The Phrase Finder
Accessed Jul 04 2003.

Public domain text taken from 73. Stubb and Flask Kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk Over
Accessed Jul 04 2003.

Accessed Jul 04 2003. Letter D
Accessed Jul 04 2003.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Grain of salt

Cum grano salis
    With great limitation; with its grain of salt, or truth. As salt is sparingly used in condiments, so is truth in the remark just made.
    - The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1894)

If pepper is the spice of life, then salt is life itself. The prized white mineral has occupied an important part in the past because it was scattered randomly across the earth's surface. In Mark Kurlansky's book Salt (2002) there are many interesting facts about the mineral and its history. One critic writes:

    Homer called salt a divine substance. Plato described it as especially dear to the gods. Today we take salt for granted, a common, inexpensive substance that seasons food or clears ice from roads, a word used casually in expressions ("salt of the earth," take it with a grain of salt") without appreciating their deeper meaning. However, as Mark Kurlansky so brilliantly relates in his world-encompassing new book, salt "the only rock we eat "has shaped civilization from the very beginning. ...

    Until about 100 years ago, when modern chemistry and geology revealed how prevalent it is, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities, and no wonder, for without it humans and animals could not live. Salt has often been considered so valuable that it served as currency, and it is still exchanged as such in places today. Demand for salt established the earliest trade routes, across unknown oceans and the remotest of deserts: the city of Jericho was founded almost 10,000 years ago as a salt trading center. Because of its worth, salt has provoked and financed some wars, and been a strategic element in others, such as the American Revolution and the Civil War. Salt taxes secured empires across Europe and Asia and have also inspired revolution (Gandhi's salt march in 1930 began the overthrow of British rule in India); indeed, salt has been central to the age-old debate about the rights of government to tax and control economies.

Since ancient times salt has been a symbol of virtue because of its fundamental quality as a preservative. Long before Judas was depicted as a betrayer in Leonardo da Vinci's painting of the Last Supper with his arm having just knocked over the saltcellar, Jews, Greeks, and Romans saw salt as a sign of purity. Salt was a valuable article of trade during the Roman with soldiers receiving a salarium argentum so that they could purchase it. A distant trade in ancient Greece connected to the barter of salt for slaves gave rise to the expression, "not worth his salt." From the Latin sal mentions of salt flourish in words around the world and while the cautionary phrase became the precursor of the English words like salary. It grew even more so regarding its uses with foods and many derivatives like sauce salsa, salami, salad, and sausage.

Initially Roman soldiers received salt rations; later, they were given money to buy their own salt and this was called a salarium. It's interesting to note that because the Romans used pumpkins were to carry their rations of salt, todays Italians use pumpkin to represent the head and use the phrase "to have salt in pumpkin."

Take with a grain of salt and a lie detector, then call me in the morning

Even more notable is that the Romans not only believed that the head was filled with salt but that it also could make dangerous or tainted food safe. It was Pliny the Elder who first prescribed to take anything suspicious with a grain of salt." A grain of salt is in fact a rendition of the Latin phrase cum grano salis. In this case it may have been an antidote to poison. The origins of this expression could refer to Pliny's commentary in Natural History where he mentions the first century BC King of Pontus, Mithradates the Great. He tells how Mithradates made himself immune to poison by swallowing small amounts of it with a grain of salt.

Living in great fear of assassination by poisoning Mithradates studied the subject of antidotes extensively. By testing them on condemned criminals he is said to have invented the "universal" antidote that became widely known as mithridatum. Pliny describes some 54 different poisons and notes that Mithradates took small doses of various poisons daily to render him invulnerable. Ironically when Pompey invaded Rome and Mithridates attempted to commit suicide by poison it failed and he made one of his soldiers stab him to death. The formula for his antidote was secretly guarded until Pompey took it back to Rome where the recipe was discovered to be a simple compound of "twenty leaves of Rue pounded with two Figs, two dried Walnuts and a grain of salt."

Pliny himself makes no distinction whether this is true or wildly fantastic. However several etymologists and The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms say that this breakthrough antidote for poison called mithridate was to be taken "cum grano salis." And this seems to be the case for making it effective. By the time the phrase first appeared in English in 1647 someone may have determined that Pliny had been dubious about both the cure or its effectiveness and intended that cum grano salis to imply 'with a dose of skepticism'.

Letting the cat out of the bag

In 1934 a classic horror movie appeared that co starred Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi for the first time. Its title is The Black Cat and one trivia buff notes that part of the satanic prayer Karloff's character chants contains the readily recognizable Latin phrase "cum grano salis."

Today the common sense adage can be found in other languages. For example the Dutch say, "korreltje zout" while the Swedish use, "en nypa salt." It describes situations where something is heard and not taken too seriously or with reserve and skepticism. Somewhere along the way the catchphrase branched into "a pinch of salt" meaning if one hears something of doubtful truth or in other words if something is unpalatable then, by taking it 'with a pinch of salt', it becomes more acceptable. This may be an inroad into the arena of cooking, since oftentimes cooks will toss in a pinch of salt to make food tastier. So finding the proverb at the dinner table, it's not too far of a leap to take a tale with a grain of salt to make it more appetizing. However, the amount of salt figuratively needed to make an improbable statement acceptable often fluctuates from a few grains to a whole ocean.


Chicago Area Mensa / Mensa of Illinois / Cheap Eats
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Online Etymology Dictionary
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Open Dictionary
Accessed Nov 28 2004 a

Poisoning in Ancient Times
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Science Fair Projects - Grain of salt
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Word of the Day
Accessed Nov 28 2004 a Home Page
Accessed Nov 28 2004 a