Yoo-hoo, do you know YOLO? The buzzword stands for You Only Live Once. But when I say buzz, YOLO has pretty much buzzed off already, loved then loathed by the cool kids. Hit the charts with a bullet, then dropped like a stone.
That’s how modern slang behaves — new words born and exiled before you have time to boil an egg. That velocity befits a word like YOLO, what Jack Black calls the carpe diem for stupid people.
Another actor, Zac Efron, has YOLO tattooed on his hand, though I’m hoping that’s with henna dye for his sake. Which says something of our times. Just because a word fizzles in a flash doesn’t mean it’s not a phenom.
In 2013, most dictionaries toyed with the slang as a possible entry, listing the newbie among other database candidates. Some three years later, the abbreviation has truly arrived. Check any reputable word bank and you’ll find the upstart nestled between yolk sac and Yom Kippur. Sure, the word has already been rejected by the in-crowd, yet the daggier majority is only now getting the hang of it.
Adding to YOLO’s status is the slang’s multiple offshoots. Urban Dictionary, the iGen lexicon, has logged two dozen YOLO spin-offs. Seriously, where have you been, bro? A yoloist is one who applies yologic to any situation, which often translates as a lame excuse for a dumb decision.
The stupid-factor is YOLO’s other asset, and the many satires the word has inspired. According to YOLO (The Musical) on YouTube, you can shower in your clothes or set fire to your hair. College Humour, that other spoof turbine, is pushing for the variants of YOLOLO (You Only LOL Once), and YOYOKOONOSOCO — You’re Only Yoko Ono, So Chill Out.
What would Honore de Balzac be saying about now? In The Human Comedy, published in 1896, the novelist coined the phrase, “on ne vit qu’une fois”, which roughly translates as “you only live once”. A stylish precursor no doubt, though ONVQ’UF hardly rolls off the tongue.
Ian Fleming had his own take on the truism, with that 1967 Bond romp in Japan, YOLT. Then there was the street label YOLO Gear, as registered in 1993. A decade later, the reality series Average Joe tested the mojo of so-so yoyos to date a beauty queen. One contestant sported a YOLO bracelet, invoking the motto to build up his nerve. Clearly the craze was picking up speed.
Though don’t think I’m a qualified yolologist. Much of this history comes courtesy of Know Your Meme, a website devoted to tagging internet fads, with YOLO its own rampant saga. The biggest usage spike was linked to rap singer Drake, after his 2011 song The Motto, where YOLO is a chorus yodel.
This sparked the YOLO hashtag, a prompt for twitterati to register their more defiant follies, from girls getting drunk to boys car-surfing. YOLO in fact tapped into that other teen-plus neurosis of FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out. Scary to think our kids were out there chanting YOLO due to FOMO. Maybe they still are.
But dumbness is luminous in any language, and the phrase has copped some clever pushback lately. Several chat rooms have distorted YOLO into You Obviously Lack Originality. Or the riposte of YOYO: You’re On Your Own. Or the cute reversal, OLOY — Only Losers Obey YOLO.
BuzzFeed, another slang filter, enjoyed major traffic with its 10 alternative phrases to YOLO. These included seize the day; now or never; life is too short; and the Doris Day anthem Que Sera Sera, which must be the unDrakest song on the jukebox.
Katie Couric, the Lisa Wilkinson of US telly, could well be the singular YOLO slayer. Her talk show boasts a segment called “What’s Your YOLO?”, tryhard hip-speak for items on your bucket list.
My teenage daughter is also diminishing the phrase, as her peers use YOLO to enshrine the mundane. When eating a yoghurt one day past shelf-life, Tess may holler YOLO, the war-cry its own inbuilt parody, just as LOL flags a lousy joke. Which reminds me: what did Yoda say to Han Solo? OOYL — Only Once You Live.
David Astle is better known as DA on the crossword page in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. His latest book is Riddledom — 101 Riddles & Their Stories. More information on his wonderfully wordy publications can be found at davidastle.com and he tweets at @dontattempt.