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.