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The Word

What is YOLO? Only teenagers know for sure

A youthful slang craze flies under the adult radar

ANTHONY SCHULTZ/GLOBE STAFF

Every now and then, a bit of slang comes along that draws a bright red line between young and old. In 2012, that slang term is
YOLO.

If you are over 25, YOLO likely means nothing to you. If you are under 25, you may be so familiar with YOLO that you’re already completely sick of it.

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A tip to the oldsters: YOLO is an acronym for “You Only Live Once.” It shot to fame earlier this year thanks to the rapper Drake, whose song “The Motto” has the hook, “You only live once, that’s the motto...YOLO, and we ’bout it every day, every day, every day.” After a video for the song was released in February, the buzzword spread quickly among the high school and college-age set by word of mouth, not just in person but through the turbocharged vehicle of social media.

How quickly? Consider the lists of slang compiled every semester by students of Connie Eble, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. YOLO was entirely absent from the submissions by Eble’s fall 2011 classes. By the spring semester, YOLO had become the most frequently mentioned slang term among the students, just edging out “totes” for “totally” and “cray” (or “cray-cray”) for “crazy.”

What accounts for the meteoric rise of YOLO, and how has it gone virtually unnoticed by nonmillennials? Its appeal to the youthful is self-evident. YOLO as a shorthand mantra defines youth, on a certain level. What is teenagehood if not the adventurous, often foolhardy, desire to test the limits of acceptable behavior—because hey, why not? YOLO!

The carpe diem sentiment of “you only live once” has a long history predating its punchy acronymic clipping. Garson O’Toole, on his Quote Investigator blog, traces variations on the theme back to the 18th century, as in this line from Samuel Richardson’s novel “Clarissa”: “We live but once in this world; and when gone, are gone from it for ever.” The exact wording of “you only live once” begins cropping up in the late 19th century, and by 1937 it was popular enough to be used as the title of a Fritz Lang film noir. One wry elaboration, credited to the comedian Joe E. Lewis in 1952, is “You only live once, but if you work it right, once is enough.”

Today’s young purveyors of YOLO do indeed appear to be trying to work it right, though what that means is up for debate. Eble’s students illustrate its typical use, as a carefree tag to explain an impulsive choice: “You want to park illegally in this spot? YOLO!” “Should I buy these shoes or pay rent? YOLO!” The word has also found favor as a verb, as in this Yelp review of a Jersey City pizzeria: “All the times I come home after a night of YOLO-ing, I crave a delish slice to soak up the booze and sober me up.”

But as the term has circulated over the past several months, a YOLO backlash has set in. Jason Salcedo, a high school senior from Stuart, Fla., recently blogged that YOLO is now “used by teens only as an absolute justification to do dangerous or harmful things.” As he pointed out, those who use it might not appreciate that you only die once, too.

Even as teenagers argue over the merits of YOLO-ing, their parents and teachers remain largely oblivious. Slang serves a powerful function for marking an “in-group,” as sociologists say, and it’s easy to see how YOLO would be precisely the type of term that its users would want to keep to themselves, away from elders.

One elder who has taken notice is David McCullough Jr., an English teacher at Wellesley High School (and son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian). “Now, before you dash off and get your YOLO tattoo,” he said in his caustic commencement address for the school in June, “let me point out the illogic of that trendy little expression—because you can and should live not merely once, but every day of your life. Rather than You Only Live Once, it should be You Live Only Once...but because YLOO doesn’t have the same ring, we shrug and decide it doesn’t matter.”

(McCullough’s objection to the placement of “only” in the expression is an old one, but even the great usage writer Henry Fowler thought it was folly to insist on placing “only” nearest to the part of the sentence it qualifies, ridiculing “the modern precisians who have more zeal than discretion.” No one, upon hearing “you only live once,” would would interpret it to mean that living is the only thing you do once—just as “I only have eyes for you” would never be understood to mean that “eyes for you” are the only thing I have.)

If there’s anything that signals the death knell of YOLO, it is that Katie Couric has now latched onto it. In advance of her syndicated talk show, “Katie,” which debuts next month, Couric has announced that the show will have a regular feature called “What’s Your YOLO?”, encouraging viewers to make videos describing things they want to do before they die. After Couric’s use of the term was reported, the writer Greg Campbell tweaked her on Twitter: “Rule of thumb: When @KatieCouric starts using internet acronyms, they’ve jumped the shark months ago.”

It’s true that if Couric and others of her age group start YOLO-ing, making the term synonymous with crossing items off one’s “bucket list,” any generational cachet it might have will be lost. But it would be somehow fitting if an expression encapsulating the joys and perils of youthful indiscretion burns out just as quickly as it blossomed.

Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and
Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.
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