One of the things that has been fascinating me recently is the evolution of the dictionary, how language is re-appropriated, and what it all means. I found it greatly disheartening to learn that the word “YOLO” has been added to the Oxford English Dictionary.
“YOLO: you only live once; typically used as rationale or endorsement for impulsive or irresponsible behavior”.
The evolution of the word, as with any word, is quite intriguing. Most people attribute this word to the Degrassi actor/rapper Drake, who used it in his song ‘The Motto’, and that is what lead to the massive overuse of the word.
The actual saying ‘you only live once’ can be attributed to Goethe in the 18th century when, in his tragedy Clavigo, he stated, “Man lebt nur einmal in der Welt”, which means, “You only live once in this world”. Since that time, Johann Strauss II has dedicated a waltz to the idea; it has been popularized and re-appropriated in our culture as well. See: the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice.
However, we have Adam Mesh, from the third season of The Average Joe, to thank for the first “known” use of the acronym. He created a clothing line in 2004 named ‘You Only Live Once (YOLO)’.
Since its inception in 2004, it has been used to describe a campaign for artists The Strokes, who named the mass radio-request of their song You Only Live Once, “Operation YOLO”; as a life coaching channel on YouTube entitled YOLO Coaching; and in a video dedicated to living life to the fullest, by YouTube User JCVdude.
Up until this time, it had been used as a way to encourage people to live life to the fullest. However, the meaning of the word would shift drastically after October 23, 2011, when Drake tweeted a photograph of himself on a balcony, along with the sentence, “You only live once…. YOLO”.
The days following October 23rd, tweets with the hashtag YOLO became more common. Thanks to Twitter and Google tracking, the rise in frequency and popularity of the word is actually visible. It wasn’t until Halloween of 2011 that Drake’s song, ‘The Motto’, was released to radio. The motto which was, of course, YOLO. On February 10, 2012, the official music video was released to the public. This video currently has over 33 million views on YouTube, and half a million of these views occurred on its first day.
This is where things begin to change. This song blew up, and people started to use the word YOLO. However, instead of its intended meaning – living life to the fullest – it began to change shape and evolve with every tweet, Instagram post, and Facebook status.
A fine example of this change: when aspiring rapper Inkyy tweeted “Drunk af going 120 drifting corners #Fuckit YOLO”, only to die in a car accident minutes later.
The word YOLO is now either used ironically, or to justify acting stupid, living dangerously, or basically doing asinine shit. And I do mean shit. Example:
Irony: Even though I’m on a diet, I’m going to eat McDonald’s today, YOLO.
Stupidity: I feel like smoking crack today, YOLO.
The word YOLO exists now only to justify making bad decisions. That being said, YOLO was shortlisted for the “Word of 2012″.
As offensive as it is, I think that YOLO is a fine word for the year 2012. Why? Not because I like it, but because of what it says about our society.
We are capable of taking every word that exists and turning it into garbage. We have a plethora of words available to use, to play with, to learn, to enjoy – yet we live in a time where people want to abbreviate, dissect, and generally destroy the English language. Instead of educating ourselves and evolving our minds and language in a way that reflects the limitless expanse of human intellect, we abbreviate and we dumb down.
It does not surprise me that a sentence as simple as “You only live once” – meant to humble us and remind us that we are only alive for a brief moment in time, and that in order to fully enjoy life you must make the most of each and every day – can now be used to justify life-threatening, dangerous, and sometimes sociopathic behavior. We have effectively taken something as complex as the enjoyment of life on this Earth, and dismantled it into yet another reason to get drunk again this weekend.
For that reason, I believe that YOLO should have been the firstchoice for word of the year in 2012. It is an ode to an era – our era – where the disintegration of language, lives, and community can be summed up into one stupid fucking acronym: YOLO.
Originally written in December 2012