Slang Origins: The Eulogy of YOLO

By Ian Kimbell

YOLO: It’s a dying phrase. After it gained popularity a couple years ago, it then became ironically cool, and is now gone. Unlike swag, YOLO is meeting its demise as a slang term, soon to be gone from our memories, but never from our hearts. YOLO deserves a place among all of the great slang terms. I’m Ian Kimbell, and this week on Slang Origins, I pay tribute to a passing pal.

YOLO began centuries ago in Germany, when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote the line, “one lives but once in this world” in a play during the year of 1774. This German show, titled Clavigo, popularized this motto. Less than a century later, Johann Strauss II created a waltz called “Man Lebt nur Einmal!,” which translates to “You Only Live Once.” Later, in 1954, a comedian name Joe E. Lewis used the phrase, “You only live once, but if you work it right, once is enough.” Joe E. Lewis popularized this to the brim in the mid-‘90s, as seen by this quote from Frankie: “I expect to swing for 50 more. You only live once and the way I live, once is enough. I stole that from Joe E. Lewis.” Quite a while after this, in 1994, a t-shirt company began to use the name “You Only Live Once! Gear.”

The first modern song based on this mantra was published in 2006, when The Strokes released “You Only Live Once.” The group called Unsolved Mysteries released a song of the same name five years later. However, the phrase exploded when Aubrey Drake Graham used it, but you may know him as Drake. Back in 2011, he and Lil’ Wayne released a song called “The Motto.” In the song, the phrase, “You only live once,” is used many times. This song also gave birth to the acronym we all know: YOLO. after that, YOLO was stuck in the media for a year or two, and it has met its demise.

Going from a play in Germany to a t-shirt company to Sinatra to Drake, YOLO has been through a long journey. In its modern prime, it was used as an excuse for bad or unusual ideas. Here I am, to pay homage to this mantra. This is Slang Origins, and I’ll see you next time.