Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?

This December 31st, perhaps among friends and loved ones, we will welcome in the New Year, 2017. Many people toast in the new year with a drink of some kind, but what is the relationship between a toast with a glass, and the toast eaten at breakfast? Long ago, spiced bread which was grilled or charred was added to wine or ale to add extra flavor it. This sense of having something apart from the normal drink extended to the customs and superstitions surrounding toasting itself — it is supposedly bad luck to toast with an empty glass, or toast with water, because these situations are not special enough to merit the toast. Here are some other mysteries surrounding New Year's traditions explained.

Auld Lang Syne

There are tons of Christmas songs, but there aren't many New Year's Eve songs. Frank Loesser's 1947 "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" is a great song that was briefly popularized a few years ago in an internet video by Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but the song that everyone knows is "Auld Lang Syne." Based on a poem by poet Robert Burns, the lyrics are in Burns' Scottish-inflected English of the late 18th century.  'Auld Lang Syne" literally means  "old long since," but can be rendered as "days gone by" or "old times." The song is asking a question: "Is it right that old acquaintances and old times should be forgotten?" The little-known verses of the song (here are three in a modern English translation) make it clear that we should value old times and all we have been through together:

We two have run about the slopes,
And picked the daisies fine;
But we've wandered many a weary foot,
Since auld lang syne    

We two have paddled in the stream,
From morning sun till dine
But seas between us broad have roared
Since auld lang syne

And there's a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o' thine!
And we'll take a right good-will draught
For auld lang syne

Awash in nostalgia, these verses carry in them a understanding of personal history as something to be acknowledged and celebrated, even if some bad things (like the broad sea roaring between them) have gotten in the way at times. The song is sung at important events like funerals, but if the answer to the question the song asks is "yes, we should remember old times", then singing it on New Year's Eve seems especially appropriate — as a new year dawns, it make sense to reflect on times past.


Besides College Football, New Year's Eve toasts and a rousing rendition of "Auld Lang Syne" at midnight, the other New Year's tradition is the New Year's resolution. A new year's resolution is a vow to do something differently in the coming year — to stop bad behavior (smoking, drinking) or to embrace behavior that is good for you (dieting, exercising).  Although hard to live up to, they are supposed to be iron-clad decisions to change the way you act. It is this same sense of the word that is captured when you hear about a governing or parliamentary body passing a resolution, such as a U.N. resolution about a certain global crisis.

Besides this "solution" sense of the word, however, resolution can mean something else.  Resolution is often associated with the quality of an image in a photograph or on a TV screen. Optical resolution has to do with smaller units, like pixels, that make up an image. It is this sense that captures what resolution originally meant — “a breaking into parts.” Resolution is related to resolute, which came to mean, around the 16th century, "determined, decided, final." What connects this sense of resolute and the original notion of resolution is the idea that you have to break something down into its component parts to get at the real truth of it. One is supposed to be decided and final, resolute, about one's New Year's resolutions, as if they have gotten to the heart of what is really wrong by stripping away all the superfluous stuff and are now committed to true change. Although it is rarely easy to stick to your search for truth in the form of keeping your resolution by the time the middle of the calendar year rolls around, the process of making resolutions allows one to take stock of their lives at the beginning of the year, and believing you can change can be a confidence booster for awhile, even if actual change proves elusive. 

Whether you choose to celebrate the past with a toast or a song, the New Year is also about looking ahead.  Whether you'd like to continue on the path you're on or need a second chance at an opportunity, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day are brimming with possibility. In the late 14th century,  resolution meant "breaking into parts."  By the 1540s it had come to mean "the power of holding firmly."  If the definition of a word can change so drastically in less than a century and a half, surely losing some extra weight in the space of a few months isn't an impossible task!

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Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects. Click here to read more articles by Adam Cooper.