Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Further Adventures of YOLO

Can a simple slangy acronym mark a generation gap? YOLO, short for "You Only Live Once," has emerged as an age-based shibboleth: all too familiar to members of the millennial set, and all but meaningless to their elders. In my latest Boston Globe column, I dissect the YOLO phenomenon, but there's much more to say about those four letters.

First, some prehistory. The idea of taking advantage of the moment because life is fleeting is an ancient one: consider the Latin aphorism carpe diem, or "seize the day." (As "JackyBIack" opined on Twitter, "I am fairly certain that 'YOLO' is 'Carpe Diem' for stupid people.") In English, as Garson O'Toole's Quote Investigator blog explains, the expression "you only live once" has precursors going back to the 18th century at least. Michael Hancher notes a 17th-century forerunner:

Ah shouldst thou live but once Love's Sweets to prove,
Thou wilt not love to live, unlesse thou live to love.
— Phineas Fletcher, Brittain's Ida (1628)

The first attestation that O'Toole found for the exact wording "you only live once" is from an 1896 translation of Balzac's La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy). The original expression in French is On ne vit qu'une fois, which nowadays is apparently best known as the Francophone version of the American soap opera "One Life to Live." German expresses the same sentiment as Man lebt nur einmal, which Johann Strauss II used as the title of a waltz in 1855.

In the 20th century, "You only live once" became such a well-known catchphrase that it spawned numerous variations. In the Globe column I mentioned the spin that the comedian Joe E. Lewis put on it: "You only live once, but if you work it right, once is enough." (Many attribute this version to Mae West.) And in 1964, Ian Fleming called one of his James Bond novels You Only Live Twice, which also served as the title of the 1967 movie adaptation and its theme song by Nancy Sinatra. When the song was used at the end of the season finale of the TV series "Mad Men" in June, many made the connection between the then-burgeoning YOLO trend and the YOLT alternative.

When did "you only live once" start getting the acronymic treatment? YOLO has been in use for commercial purposes since at least 1993, when a trademark was filed for YOLO Gear. (The clothing line's logo gave the full expression as the tagline.) Non-commercially, the earliest example I've found is on the Usenet newsgroup rec.sport.jetski in August 1998, where a participant wrote,"YOLO!!!!!!!!! You Only Live Once, might as well enjoy." Its first national exposure may have come in 2004, when Adam Mesh from the reality TV show "Average Joe" used it as his slogan and sported a bracelet with the acronym.

The website Know Your Meme has tracked various other sightings, such as the YOLO tattoo that tween heartthrob Zac Efron got last year. But it was Drake's song "The Motto" (released late last year with a video this past February) that set the YOLO trend skyrocketing. After the term became an all-purpose buzzword excusing bad behavior, the inevitable backlash ensued. Some have reanalyzed the acronym as standing for "You Obviously Lack Originality," while others have flipped it to OLOY, short for "Only Losers Obey YOLO." Grant Barrett informs me that among San Diego high schoolers, YOLO is greeted with a response of YOYO: "You're On Your Own."

The true victims of the YOLO trend may be the residents of Yolo County, California. Justin Cox recently complained on Davis Patch that his efforts at using Twitter to get the word out about Yolo County events are stymied by the use of the #YOLO hashtag for such inanities as "Soaking gummy bears in vodka then handing them out to children....#YOLO." Cox considered abandoning the use of the #Yolo hashtag for his county, but thought the better of it: "it was our county name before it was their motto and it's guaranteed to fade away in the near future," Cox wrote. "So I think I'll ride it out." Best of luck to Cox, but YOLO doesn't appear to be dying out any time soon  — unless Katie Couric drives a stake through it with the "What's Your YOLO?" segment on her new syndicated talk show.

YOLO may even get Word of the Year consideration when the American Dialect Society gathers to discuss the significant words of 2012. After all, a somewhat similar acronym made it to the WOTY finals for 2011: FOMO, short for "Fear Of Missing Out." And if you think you've missed the boat on the YOLO phenomenon, then you clearly suffer from YOLO FOMO.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.