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Stories behind Words: Hogmanay

This post from the Stories behind Words series is from 2014. Happy 2021 everyone!

www.wordle.net31st December, the last night of the year in the Western calendar, is celebrated in many places, but nowhere more enthusiastically than in Scotland. The Scots even have their own word for this festival, shunning the pedestrian New Year’s Eve for the Scots word Hogmanay.

The etymology of Hogmanay is complicated, but it is believed to be French in origin, coming ultimately from the Old French aguillanneuf, meaning ‘last day of the year’ or ‘new year’s gift’. This makes perfect sense in view of the auld alliance, the traditional alliance between the kingdoms of France and Scotland before the latter became joined to England through the ascension of King James VI of Scotland to the English throne as James I in 1603.

There are several traditions associated with Hogmanay, including first footing, which involves visiting friends and neighbours as soon as the New Year starts, often bearing gifts that may include whisky, shortbread, coal (for good luck) and black bun (a type of fruit cake). Tall dark men are particularly prized as first footers, as they are supposed to bring the greatest amount of luck. Hogmanay is celebrated so enthusiastically that Scots have an extra day off to recover, 2nd January being an additional bank holiday just in Scotland.

Another tradition that has spread far beyond Scotland is the singing of Auld Lang Syne as midnight strikes. This traditional song, with words rewritten by Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns, urges us to remember old friends for old time’s sake, and those singing it frequently link arms to emphasize these sentiments.

And so now it seems appropriate to wish old friends and new a very happy and healthy New Year!

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter


  • Thanks for this Liz – I was up there doing it for real – in Inverness visiting friends and saw the ‘Red Hot Chilli Pipers’ – yes, really, you couldn’t make it up …. The remoteness of our friends’ place made ‘first footing’ a bit tricky tho. Happy 2014!

  • Hi Liz – try this on for an alternative etymology, and one that actually ends up sounding like hogmanay. The way to say ‘The coming of midnight’ in Irish (and by extension Scots Gaelic, as they are fundamentally the same language) is ‘theacht meán oíche’ pronounced (roughly) ‘hocht man eeha’ with through the passaage of time and the dropping of the final syllable still sounds close enough to ‘hogmanay’.

  • Hi Philip, that’s a fascinating thought. I have to confess to having snitched my etymology from the OED and who knows, maybe they got it wrong? Though the fact that the practice of going from door to door was mentioned as being common both in southern Scotland and northern England as early as the 17th century perhaps argues against a Gaelic origin.
    The OED citations include many different spellings, with the current form only becoming established in the 19th century. Here’s one from 1693: “It is ordinary among some Plebeians in the South of Scotland, to go about from Door to Door upon New-Year’s Eve, crying Hagmane.” A practice confined to the lower orders of society, then.

  • Hi Liz
    there is no guarantee that gaeilic was not also being spoken in Northern England in the 17th century – Gaelic is a much older language than the 17th century!

    anyway, I met a Scotsman once who was dressed in full kilt regalia who did not know that the knife tucked into his right sock was called a sgian-dubh because scian dubh menas black knife in Gaelic.

  • I think you mean King James V1’s accession to the throne, not ‘ascension’!!!! In Eastern Europe you also go out and meet people on the street (after you’ve opened your presents at home and had a big meal) and watch fireworks going off.

  • Interesting point, Sandy. There are three possibilities here: accession, ascent and ascension. I’ve just checked their frequency in the corpus I use: in terms of frequency accession is the most frequent, then ascension and finally ascent. This surprised me as I’d have expected ascent to be more frequent than ascension. I didn’t want to use accession as it is rather more formal than the other two. But all three are acceptable.

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