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How ‘YOLO’ went from Drake to dictionary

Drake’s song “The Motto” popularized the term “YOLO.”

Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP/file 2013

Drake’s song “The Motto” popularized the term “YOLO.”

On Wednesday, the editors of Oxford’s online dictionary announced a regular update to their coffers of words. The online dictionary, not to be confused with the venerable OED, is a fairly fast-on-its-feet compendium that seeks to track the “living language…from highbrow to slang.”

The new entries are mostly words, expressions, and acronyms that are ordinary and old-hat on the Web but might still cause a copy editor, or your mom, to raise an eyebrow. These include fandom (“The state or condition of being a fan of someone or something”), mansplain, anti-vax—and, as many news stories noted, YOLO.

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YOLO—“you only live once”—is a word that leapt from unknown to ubiquitous T-shirt slogan in what must be record time. It is also a term for which I have a special affection, as the editor of the Word column here at Ideas.

In August 2012, I was talking to my then 21-year-old cousin when she said, jokingly, “YOLO!” What’s YOLO? I asked her, in my clueless thirtysomething way. It was a word that people her age didn’t use, she told me, but that a friend of hers who taught high school constantly heard from kids who had neglected their homework and instead seized the day, as teenagers are wont to do. (This was a whole ten months after Drake’s song “The Motto,” which popularized the term, was released, which shows you just how slow some of us are to catch on.) In looking it up online, I found that the word was being used constantly by young people on Twitter but that no one seemed to have written about it as a language phenomenon.

Ben Zimmer, our language columnist, promptly tracked YOLO to its source and wrote a column explaining this word so demographically specific that a 21-year-old could be too old to say it, except in air quotes. In August 2012, the term, as Zimmer notes, was already starting to be uncool, trickling into graduation addresses and even appearing in association with Katie Couric, not exactly the epitome of urban teen edge.

But it turned out that a column explaining YOLO was exactly what grown-ups wanted to read. Our YOLO column promptly shot to the top of our “most-read” list – and stayed there, for months. By now it ranks as one of the most popular pieces ever published in Ideas. Now, it has finally made it into at least an online authoritative reference guide. Time from Drake to dictionary: 1017 days.

Read Ben Zimmer’s YOLO column

Amanda Katz is the deputy editor of Ideas. You can e-mail her at AmKatz@globe.com or follow her on Twitter @katzish.
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