The Meaning and Origin of the Acronym: YOLO
What Started the “YOLO” Craze?
The popular phrase used without hesitation in today’s society, “YOLO” or “You Only Live Once” was thought to have been started by rapper Drake in the song “The Motto” in 2011. While Drake may have made YOLO popular and spread his message of basically doing whatever you want because you only live once, this isn’t where the phrase started, exactly.
What is YOLO?
YOLO is an acronym meaning You Only Live Once and it’s a popular phrase implying one should enjoy life, take risks and do whatever they want because one day they won’t be here. It’s similar to the Aleister Crowley motto “Do What Thou Wilt,” which has been seen on clothing worn by Jay-Z and other famous celebrities.
Some will say it’s not easily compared to the Aleister Crowley statement simply because YOLO isn’t meant to be satanic and “Do What Thou Wilt” is directly related to satanic rituals. However, YOLO fits right in with doing whatever you want, which is the basis of Crowley’s motto.
How’d “YOLO” get started?
Talk to a teenager or someone in their twenties and they will likely point to the Drake song “The Motto” as the start of YOLO. However, this wasn’t an original idea of Drake’s or anybody in his camp. Here are just a few of the things using YOLO well before Drake’s song was even conceived.
- YOLO Lounge (2011) – While it may have only opened a few months before the song was released; YOLO Lounge beat Drake to the punch.
- “You Only Live Once” by Katie Price (2010) – The book was released before the song as an autobiography.
- YOLO Bar (2009) – A bar found in Queens, which is now called Ditmars operated under the name YOLO for a brief time in 2009.
- YOLO Restaurant (2008) – The restaurant was opened in Florida and nobody can even confirm whether Drake has been to it or not.
- “You Only Live Once” by The Strokes (2006) – The song was released with what they called “Operation: YOLO,” which was a marketing campaign to get the song more airplay.
- YOLO Boards (2005) – A surf board company used YOLO a full 6 years before Drake every uttered the phrase.
- YOLO Clothing Line (2004) – A clothing line from the third season of The Average Joe created by Adam Mesh was created well before Drake’s rap. Mesh said, “When I created the word it was meant as inspiration to live life to the fullest. Disappointed in current use. I have moved on.” This is even more proof of the usage of YOLO today being closer to the “Do What Thou Wilt” than meaning live life to the fullest.
- YOLO Colorhouse (1995) – More than 15 years before Drake dropped his song, a design company already used YOLO.
- YOLO Basin Foundation (1990) – A place for wild animals and 21 years prior to the song.
- “You Only Live Once” Film (1937) – An old time film show YOLO highlighted in red as the acronym long before Drake was even born.
- YOLO County, California (1850) – When the gold rush was on, the YOLO County was settled in California. Drake’s grandpa probably wasn’t even thought of yet.
This easily establishes the history of YOLO dates back much further than the Drake song “The Motto” and its’ 2011 release date.
Other Phrases Leading to the Establishment of YOLO
There are several phrases in both English and other languages with similar meanings to YOLO dating back centuries. Some of the most popular include:
- Carpe Diem – Means Seize the Day and was popularized by the US Marines
- Clavigo – A Play from 1774 written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe uses a phrase translated to “one lives but once in the world.”
- Memento Mori – A Latin phrase translating to remember that you have to die.
- Man Lebt Nur Einma! – The title of an 1855 waltz from Johann Strauss II, which translates to You Only Live Once. This may be the first EXACT showing of YOLO used in history.
Throughout history, other phrases with similar meaning are found, as well. It was also common to see the phrase with “We” instead of “You”, along with the altering of the order of words, such as “We live only once.”
In 1721 a very similar phrase was used in a religious context from Of Dying This Year; In Two Sermons Preach’d at Edmunton, which reads:
Death is final and irrecoverable, we die but once, and therefore we live but once on Earth; the next Life is either Heaven or Hell for ever.
Here we see it in the phrase, “we die but once,” while not exactly the same, the meaning is very similar.
Similar phrasing is also seen between 1747 and 1749 in the novel Clariss by Samuel Richardson. It was published in eight volumes and used phrases, such as, “since we live but once in this world.” Both Fyodor Dostoevsky and Honore de Balzac used similar phrasing in their novels.
Another instance of the phrase being used is seen in comedian Joe E. Lewis’ nightclub act when he says, “You only live once, but if you work it right, once is enough.” YOLO was also used by Frank Sinatra in 1965, but he credited the saying to Joe E. Lewis.
Schlitz Beer also used YOLO in advertisement in the 1960s and it was seen in many other historic letters, books and speeches. It’s hard to nail down the real origin of the phrase since it could have been used way back in biblical times.
How does YOLO Impact Society Today?
Today, you will hear both YOLO and FOMO (fear of missing out) used by millennials and younger generations like it’s going out of style. YOLO has a direct impact on society as it was popularized by Drake and spread across social media like wildfire.
While it may just be a fun hashtag (#YOLO) for some to use, it spills over into other parts of many people’s lives other than just social media. YOLO and FOMO may be the motto of modern society and that’s not necessary a good thing.
The phrase “You Only Live Once” can easily convince a person not to plan for the future when it comes to finances or anything else. Maybe it’s the motto of millennials because of how many end up moving back in with their parents after a few years out in the world on their own.
Some have even written articles about how these two phrases could derail retirement savings for millennials and other generations adopting them. The YOLO and FOMO mindset can easily convince a person to take on debt or spend money they don’t have so they can “enjoy life” and they don’t have to “miss out” on something.
However, truly living out a live by embracing the motto, “You Only Live Once” can become very dangerous. A person may end up penniless living on the street because they were afraid they might miss out on something.
Since the new usage of YOLO doesn’t really mean seize the day, as it used to, it’s quite dangerous when adopted as a mindset. Today, it means to do what you feel like doing because one day you will die. For some, this could mean partying, drinking and doing drugs because you only get one life to try everything. For others, it could mean cheating on their partner, getting married without a care about ever getting divorce, quitting a good job or doing something else very drastic just because of embracing a false meaning of YOLO.
With so many influential celebrities showing off a lifestyle other may think they really want, YOLO grabs younger generations and pulls them in. It’s so close to the satanic meaning behind, “Do What Thou Wilt” from Aleister Crowley that the danger of the phrase may do far more harm than it could ever do good.
The worst part, the live-for-today focus is only reinforced by social media, which just about everybody under the age of 30 is involved in. It’s important to take YOLO posts with a grain of salt when they pop up in your news feed. Life has to be balanced and cannot be all about doing what you want every day because you are “YOLOing” or you suffer from “FOMO.”
An Acronym People Love to Hate
While some embrace YOLO and the dangerous meaning, others hate the acronym because they see right through it. Both The Washington Post and The Huffington Post have described it as the “newest acronym you’ll love to hate.” They have also called it dumb and used other words to criticize YOLO.
Acting with reckless abandonment simply because of a stupid phrase popularized by a morally bankrupt society can lead to something like what was posted on aspiring rapper Ervin McKinness’ Twitter wall before he passed, “Drunk af going 120 drifting corners #FuckIt YOLO.”
Even Drake apologized for how this phrase blew up and became obnoxious in the way it has been used. He did so in the opening monologue on January 19th, 2014 of Saturday Night Live.
So, while YOLO may date back a few centuries and was not originated by Drake, his rap did make it popular today. However, the true meaning behind YOLO is one that nobody should really live by or adopt.