Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor


Episode 26: New Year's Special

A common grammar topic this time of year is where to put that silly apostrophe in the phrases New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.

The sentence above shows that the answer is Y-E-A-R-apostrophe-S. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, the term new year refers to "the calendar year that has just begun or is about to begin following the 31st of December."

That means there is just one year that's new and being celebrated. The Eve—or the Day—belongs to that singular new year, thus the apostrophe comes before the S. The Oxford Dictionary of Current English spells out New Year's Eve and New Year's Day that way, too: apostrophe-S. To further reinforce this, the Gregg Reference Manual asserts that possessives in names of holidays are usually singular; New Year's Eve and New Year's Day are among them.

But talking about where to hang an apostrophe in New Year's Eve and New Year's Day isn't enough for a complete episode of Grammar Grater, so as a special treat, we brought in our friend Euan Kerr from Minnesota Public Radio News.

Kerr is originally from Scotland, and it could be said Scotland has had tremendous influence on the way the New Year's holiday is observed in the English-speaking world. Combine that with Scotland's own New Year's traditions and we have a number of linguistic lessons and new words to discuss.

One of those terms is Hogmanay. "Hogmanay is used commonly in Scotland to describe New Year's Eve," Kerr says, "but no one can exactly say for sure where it came from."

There are assertions supported by evidence that the word Hogmanay comes from Scandinavian languages, from Flemish, Anglo Saxon or Gaelic—but it probably comes from France. Given the historic alliances that existed between Scotland and France down the years, Hogmanay may have come from the French L'homme est n&3acute;, literally, "man is born," meaning for the new year. But regardless of its origin, "The great thing is," Kerr says, "we now have this word, Hogmanay, which we all use."

On Hogmanay, the bells are traditionally rung at midnight and then one hopes for a first-footer; that is, the first guest to cross one's threshold in the New Year. The first-footer presents the homeowner with symbolic gifts: coal, for warmth; black bun, a traditional fruitcake; shortbread; salt; and whisky. "And it's really good luck if it is brought by a dark-haired person," Kerr says. "The feeling used to be that in the days of the Vikings, when a fair-haired person turned up, it might not necessarily be a good thing."

A New Year's tradition that is familiar to English-speakers everywhere is the singing of Auld Lang Syne. This is a song and poem that was written by Scottish poet Robert Burns. "He was born in Ayrshire in 1759," Kerr says. "He's quite a fascinating guy. He actually only lived until he was 37 but packed a whole lot into his life. He is famed as a poet, and to a certain extent a philosopher, too: some of his work is very, very deep."

Auld Lang Syne doesn't come from Scottish Gaelic but from Broad Scots or Lallans (Lowlands)—the dialect of southern Scotland. It means "long time since" or "long time past."

"The song itself is actually quite a sad piece," Kerr says. "It's a man talking to a friend who he has known since his childhood, and they're saying, 'We have a long history, so let's lift a drink to one another.'"

Finally, we talked about Scottish reduction of New Year's Day to Ne'er Day. "I think the Scots have a great linguistic talent," Kerr says. "They either make huge words like the Germans — add lots of words together — or they truncate."

Lastly, Scots don't wish anyone "Happy New Year" until the actual new year arrives. Until that point, it is proper to say, "A good one to you when it comes."

Sources: Gregg Reference Manual by William A. Sabin; Oxford Dictionary of Current English.

Music from this Episode: "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" by Johnny Mathis; "New Year's Day" by U2; "Auld Lang Syne" performed by Cory Busse, Amy Ault and Bob Barnes.

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