An Oral History of YOLO, the Word That Lived Too Long

February 4, 2013

On the most recent episode of Saturday Night Live, the Lonely Island crew partnered with host Adam Levine and musical guest Kendrick Lamar to parody the past year's most popular and most hated word: YOLO. Andy Samburg declared the saying, short for "you only live once," to be "the battle cry of a generation," only to turn its original meaning on its head and offer "you oughta look out" as an alternative. It was a rare amusing mutation of the phrase, and the YouTube video became an instant hit, racking up more than 20 million views.

Yet YOLO's poor performance in 2012's Word of the Year competitions signals that its time as an "It word" has come and gone. As Ben Zimmer, a word scholar who served on the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year panel, puts it: "Even among the folks who were sort of language scholars and language observers, they had already gotten sick of YOLO too." Within the span of a year, it has gone from catchy new slang to a "dangerous" youth motto, to a sarcastic Twitter hashtag, to the name of a new African cell phone. The world's lexicographers have spoken: it is time we put the poor old colloquialism to rest, once and for all.

That is why, without further ado, we present an oral history of YOLO, featuring everyone from Adam Mesh, the Average Joe contestant who first popularized the term by giving his love interest a YOLO bracelet on the show, to Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who did not happen to see that viral Lonely Island clip but who does happen to be the first person to publicly coin the word.

Katherine Martin, Head of U.S. Dictionaries at Oxford University Press: The phrase "you only live once" goes back to the 19th century, and maybe it's just so irresistible that it forms a pronounceable acronym. It looks as though the original phrase sort of came into its own—there's a pretty steady increase of use from 1940 to 2000. In our research on the history of YOLO, we've uncovered it as early as 1996. Of all people, Mickey Hart, the drummer of the Grateful Dead, has a ranch called YOLO, for "you only live once," in Sonoma, California, of all places.

Mickey Hart, drummer of the Grateful Dead: My wife found this place in a brochure of homes in Sonoma County, but it was an out-of-date brochure. The person who was selling it took it off the market—he wanted too much for it. [But] we just loved the place. It was too much for us, a lot of money at that time, 22 years ago. And we just looked at each other. We wouldn't leave until we made the deal with the owner. We told him, "Just go take your clothes and take the paintings . . . We'll pay you list price, you know, here's cash and go." [Laughs.] "I'm going on tour. When I get off of tour, July 5th, I want to live here." And so we just looked at each other and we said, "Hey, you only live once!"

We shortened the name because we didn't want to talk about it with people. The Grateful Dead ranch used to be called Mickey's Ranch, or the Grateful Dead Ranch, or something like that. I didn't want any of that. So we immediately named it YOLO. It's a very special place and a four-letter word that really describes the attitude and everything pretty much behind it. Our whole mindset at the time, and the idea that to enjoy yourself while you're here, at least you know you're here. All the records I make, all the music and the projects, they all come out of YOLO. It was really a masterful stroke, just kind of sucking it up, taking a deep breath, and saying, "You only live once. Let's go for it, baby."

Adam Mesh, Average Joe reality-TV-show contestant (Mesh created and popularized YOLO merchandise while participating in the reality series): I came up with YOLO during that time there were a lot of opportunities opening in my life. The philosophy was that you only live once, so to take advantage of opportunities, live life. But it was also literally supposed to be for staying in shape and eating healthy. The saying was "you only live once," but I couldn't fit it in my phone banner, 'cause the phones weren't like they are now, so literally the only thing I could write for the banner was "YOLO."

I was on a plane going to California, and my friend was sitting next to me and he was using my phone, and he's like, "What's YOLO?" I was like, "You only live once." He was like, "I like that." I was like, "Yeah, me too." He was like, "Maybe we should create hats that say this." And I was like, "Yeah, that's a good idea."

We started creating hats and T-shirts and these YOLO bracelets with Swarovski crystals, and they were selling. We had a publicist who sent one to Jessica Simpson, and then it was in People magazine, Jessica Simpson with a YOLO bracelet. Steven Spielberg's mother bought two of them, and actually that guy Jonathan Chaben, the Kardashians' friend, he had one when he was doing the Today Show fashion. He was wearing it as, like, a loaner. It took us a while to actually get ours back from him.

I went on Average Joe and gave one of the girls, like on the dating show, a YOLO bracelet. We had filed for the trademarks to sell them, but there was a YOLO sportswear in Pennsylvania.

Ben Zimmer, lexicographer: The Average Joe thing is probably the first national exposure for YOLO, but he can't claim to be the first. The earliest I found was 1993. There was a trademark filed for YOLO gear, and you can even see on the logo it says, YOLO, and then, "You only live once," in small letters. I found online examples from 1998 in a jet-ski forum. Average Joe was 2004. It's easy to see how it could spread among athletic types, people who are involved in extreme sports, because it might be a way to encourage people to live on the edge and that sort of thing.

Mesh: I still have a publishing company for one of my businesses. It's called YOLO Publishing, and we actually started that in 2008, way before Drake.

In October 31, 2011, Drake premieres the single "The Motto," from his second studio album in Los Angeles. The song's hook goes, "Now she want a photo / You already know though / You only live once, that's the motto, nigga Yolo."

Mesh: It really wasn't so much about when the Strokes came out [with the single "You Only Live Once," in 2006], but when Drake came out with the song, someone in my office told me, "Drake has a song called 'The Motto,'" and he's like, "And the motto is YOLO." And I'm like, "No."

Mesh: Everyone started talking about it again, which was funny. But then I felt like it took on a different life. It was almost like alcohol: it was like an excuse to do bad things. I became really disillusioned. We had always gotten offers for yolo.com, and then when I saw it getting worse with what was going on, finally I was like, "All right, yeah, we'll sell it." We made a lot of money.

Zimmer: There was a really phenomenal spread of it after "The Motto" came out. Part of the reason that it got so popular was because it was so adaptable to different situations. That's one of the key elements for a successful neologism, is that it has to live beyond its original context, its original environment and adapt to new situations, and YOLO seemed to be endlessly adaptable. And whether you were talking about some sort of bad behavior that you had indulged in, or something where you were about to make a bad decision, you could write it off with that sort of YOLO excuse. It was so useful as a kind of a tag to put at the end of a sentence or statement, which worked very well on Twitter as a hashtag.

Hart: It's an easy word to use, because, you know, the other thing is, it rolls off the tongue, YOLO. [Sings.] YOLO. . . . I even wrote a song once, "YOLO." We used to go around, when we first lived here, and we were making up the song, "YOLO." And we had different verses for it, you know, about how life is sweet and grand and everything is really beautiful.

By - Alyssa Bereznak for Vanity Fair