30 November 2012


Each week on Michigan Radio's "That's What They Say," linguist and University of Michigan professor Anne Curzan discusses the hows and whys of language change. Last week's episode (11/25/2012) about the shifting meanings of idioms got me thinking about yolo. I learned about yolo last spring from students in my intro to linguistics course. We were discussing morphology and word formation processes and they gave yolo as an example of an acronym for the idiom you only live once. The students reported that they say yolo (usually as an exclamation: "Yolo!") when they trip and fall down the stairs, when they burp in class, or when they otherwise do something in public that's embarrassing or dumb. They explained that by saying yolo they acknowledge their clumsiness, social gaff, stupidity, or other embarrassment, and at the same time they laugh it off and thereby laugh at themselves. But, this meaning is different than my understanding of you only live once. When I say "you only live once," I mean 'seize the day' or 'do x,y, or z right now because it might be the last chance ever to do it.'

It's clear from these different uses and meanings that you only live once is changing. However, it seems that the meaning shift is attached to the morphological shift--that 'I did something dumb, and I know it and I can laugh about it and myself' is tied to the word yolo more than to the phrase you only live once. It's also clear that this (at least right now) is an age-graded language change. I also wonder if the use is gendered since most of the students who gave examples of its use were female.

Are there other idioms you're aware of that are undergoing change?

I wonder if yolo will be a candidate at ADS's 2012 Words of the Year vote? Maybe you have a WOTY contender that you'd like to nominate?