You Only Live Once – YOLO

Drake? Schlitz Beer? Fritz Lang? Honoré de Balzac? Joe E. Lewis? Frank Sinatra? Fyodor Dostoevsky? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: In 2011 a song called “The Motto” by Drake was released, and it contained this expression:

You only live once.

The acronym YOLO was popularized by this song, I think. But I have heard the catch phrase for decades. I recall that the famous crooner Frank Sinatra entertained concert goers with the following version:

You only live once, and the way I live, once is enough.

Could you tell me about the history of this aphorism?

Quote Investigator: The actor and hip hop artist Aubrey Drake Graham records music under the name Drake. The song “The Motto” by Drake featuring Lil Wayne was released in November 2011 and was a hit. The lyrics included the phrase “You only live once” and the term YOLO along with the following repeated chorus “We bout it every day, every day, every day.”

The acronym YOLO was popularized by Drake, but the U.S. Trademark database reveals the existence of several earlier attempts to use the acronym commercially. For example, a company selling T-shirts, tank tops, hats, and sweatshirts filed an application in June 23,1993 to obtain a trademark that incorporated the following phrase [TMYO]:

YOLO GEAR YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE! GEAR

This filing was abandoned in 1994. However, a series of other companies filed for trademarks or service marks incorporating YOLO and “You Only Live Once”. Company products included: artificial suntanning services, nutriceuticals, sportswear, and driver safety pamphlets. Top-flight researchers Barry Popik and Ben Zimmer first noted the importance of examining this trademark data.

The general expression: “You only live once” (without YOLO) has a very long history. The precise phrasing of the sentiment is variable. For example, sometimes the pronoun “we” is used instead of “you” to yield: “We only live once”. Also, sometimes the word order is altered: “We live only once”.

The modern connotations of the phrase suggest that one should live fully and take risks, i.e., one should live with gusto. But the precursors that QI has located appeared in a religious and moral context with a distinct meaning. Here is an example in 1721 [RFDY]:

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.

Between 1747 and 1749 the epistolary novel Clarissa by Samuel Richardson was published in eight volumes. Richardson included a precursor statement emphasizing that time is precious [SRCL]:

And it teaches me to be covetous of time; the only thing of which we can be allowably covetous; since we live but once in this world; and when gone, are gone from it for ever.

Noteworthy writers such as Honoré de Balzac and Fyodor Dostoevsky employed the saying in their novels. The well-known film director Fritz Lang made a crime thriller in 1937 with the title: “You Only Live Once”.

By 1952 the prominent comedian Joe E. Lewis was credited with using the following expanded version in his nightclub act [JLTP]:

You only live once, but if you work it right, once is enough.

Frank Sinatra did use the phrase mentioned by the questioner by 1965. Interestingly, he credited the saying to Joe E. Lewis. Also, in the 1960s television advertisements for Schlitz Beer used an alternative form of the saying as described further below.

Here are additional selected citations and details in chronological order.

Citations in 1721 and 1747-1749 were given above. Here is an example in 1815 [TBJR]:

We can be born anew only once, because we can live only once in this present world; but we can rise and recover often, we can grow, and be nourished often with spiritual food, …

In February 1837 a story published in “The Lady’s Magazine and Museum” contained the phrase with the pronoun “we”. But the speaker was urging cautious behavior to avoid a deadly disease instead of impetuous conduct [CSLM]:

“Due respect for your prayer, my worthy master; but my principle is, the further from the danger the safer. We only live once; and life itself is so burdensome, and full of care, that it cannot at all be pleasant to be carried out of this world by such a naughty and ugly conveyance as this cholera.”

In May 1837 another story with the phrase was  published in “The Lady’s Magazine and Museum”. A character discussed her unhappy experiences in life, but she mentioned the possibility of compensations in heaven [EWLM]:

“Well, we can only live once,” said the girl, “and it’s hard to breathe the breath of misery; but like enough we shall have heaven to ourselves for it, Hal, and we will have a sweet life on’t.”

In 1844 a collection of six romance novels was published in an omnibus edition. The work “The Princess of Wolfenbuttel” was included, and a character in the novel used the phrase while repudiating a relationship [PWHZ]:

We live only once, dear Julie. What! should I spoil my life for the whims and caprices of a man? Why should I become the slave of the prejudices and passions of another? The most powerful monarch could not compensate me for my grief, nor bring back one lost hour of my life.

In 1858 a minister in  Scotland invoked the saying while encouraging others to live in a morally upright manner [DMFS]:

We cannot live always: we can only live once. It is then the dictate not only of piety but of sound philosophy that we lay a “good foundation for the time to come.”

In 1859 the novel “Now or Never” used the saying in a modern fashion with the implication that the transitory nature of life should encourage boldness [BENN]:

Besides, we can only live once. Now or Never. The present minute is all we are sure of, and it is best to get the most out of that we can.

In 1876 an odd article titled “Hell Gate: The Great Blast Coming” was published in a Rhode Island newspaper about a massive explosion that was expected to occur in New York. A journalist interviewed some New Yorkers about this dire predicted event. Many were skeptical, and one was fatalistic [GBPP]:

“What good would it do,” queried Mr. Rockwell, the ex-policeman, “to be frightened? Why, if we’re blown up, then we’re blown up-that’s all.” And he added, with a slightly nervous twitching about his lips, “We only live once!”

In 1881 a poem titled “At Folkeston” offered the following verses on the theme [AFJG]:

The earthly life,—we live, once only,
How like the church bell’s pensive sound!
So linked with all things, yet so lonely,
So transitory, yet profound!

In 1896 an English translation of the French work “La Comédie Humaine” by the famed novelist Honoré de Balzac was published. “The Human Comedy” contained an exact match for the modern version of the saying in a passage describing a free-spending pair of characters [HCHB]:

… the couple made up, counting their New Year’s gratuities an income of sixteen hundred francs, all of which they spent, for they lived better than the majority of the common people. “You only live once,” said Madame Cibot.

In 1917 an English translation of the Russian novel “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky was published as part of the Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. The Russian novel was originally written in the 1860s. The saying appeared in the internal dialog of a character who was attempting to justify murder [CPFD]:

I only live once, I too want.

In 1937 the film noir “You Only Live Once” was released. The director was Fritz Lang and the primary stars and ill-fated lovers were Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney.

In 1952 the widely-distributed syndicated gossip-columnist Hedda Hopper
mentioned the comedian Joe E. Lewis and credited an extended variant of the saying to him. The Mocambo was a popular nightclub in West Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s [JLTP]:

Joe E. Lewis, who opens at the Mocambo June 3, says, “You only live once, but if you work it right, once is enough.”

In 1956 the powerful television host and show business impresario Ed Sullivan wrote an autobiographical series of articles for Collier’s Weekly magazine. He began the series with a quotation from Joe E. Lewis, but this instance differed slightly what from the one given by Hopper [ESCW]:

“You only live once, but if you play your cards right, once is enough,” counsels comedian Joe E. Lewis.

In 1965 Frank Sinatra turned fifty years old, and when he was asked about the milestone he replied with yet another variant of the Lewis quotation [FSSJ]:

“I expect to swing for 50 more. You only live once and the way I live, once is enough. I stole that from Joe E. Lewis.”

In 1966 Schlitz beer was a popular brand, and an advertising campaign for the beverage featured a variant of the saying under investigation. There were multiple versions of the slogan. The following is recorded in “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” [SBDM]:

You only go around once in life, so grab all the gusto you can!

In June 2011 a High School class in Pennsylvania selected a motto similar to a phrase credited to Joe E. Lewis [JLYD]:

Principal Mark Shue opened the ceremony by reminding the class of its motto, “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”

In conclusion, the phrase “You only live once” can be traced back to the 1800s with precursors in the 1700s. Early versions often used “we” instead of “you”. The influential comic Joe E. Lewis is credited with at least three different extended variants of the saying starting in the 1950s. The acronym YOLO and its pronunciation were pioneered by Drake.

(Many thanks to Skylar and her friends for suggesting this research topic and congratulations to the new graduates.)

Update History: On August 26, 2012 the information about trademarks was added.

[TMYO] Database entry in: Trademark Electronic Search System, Word Mark: YOLO GEAR YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE! GEAR, Filing Date: June 28, 199, Owner (APPLICANT) Martin, Timothy P., Jr. DBA YOLO GEAR INDIVIDUAL UNITED STATES 570 Discovery Bay Boulevard Byron CALIFORNIA 94514, Abandonment Date: October 26, 1994. (TESS at USPTO.gov)

[RFDY] 1721, Of Dying This Year; In Two Sermons Preach’d at Edmunton,
January 1, 1720, Adapted to the New-Year by Robert Franks, Sermon I: This Year Thou Shalt Die, Start Page 5, Quote Page 41, Printed for John Clark, London. (Google Books full view)

[SRCL] 1784, Clarissa: Or, the History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson,
[The Novelists Magazine; Volume 15; Volumes 5 through 8 of Clarissa],
Page 1238, Printed for Harrison and Co., London. (Google Books full view) link

[TBJR] 1815,  A Theological, Biblical, and Ecclesiastical Dictionary by John Robinson, Page header “REN”, [Unnumbered Page], Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, London. (Google Books full view)

[CSLM] 1837 February, The Lady’s Magazine and Museum, Conrad and Godfrey by C. Spindler, Start Page 122, Quote Page 123, [Under the Patronage of Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Kent], London. (Google Books full view) link

[JLTP] 1952 May 31, The Times-Picayune, Looking at Hollywood: Jerry Lewis in Golf Yarn by Hedda Hopper, [Chicago Tribune-N.Y. News Syndicate], Page 12, Column 5, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)

[EWLM] 1837 May, The Lady’s Magazine and Museum, A Scene at the Rose (from an Unpublished Novel) by Emma Whitehead, Page 301, Column 2, [Under the Patronage of Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Kent], London. (Google Books full view)

[PWHZ] 1844, The Omnibus of Modern Romance [Six Novels]: The Princess of Wolfenbuttel: A Novel by Henry Zschokke, [Translated from German by G. C. Hebbe], Quote Page 57, James Mowatt, New York. (Google News full view)

[DMFS] 1858, Essays by Ministers of the Free Church of Scotland, Edited by Rev. William Hanna, The Haldanes: A Chapter in Scottish Church History by Rev. Duncan MacGregor: Minister of Hope Street Free Church, Glasgow, Start Page 113, Quote Page 144, Thomas Constable and Co., Edinburgh. (Google Books full view)

[BENN] 1859, Now or Never by M. Betham-Edwards, Page 14,
Printed by R & R Clark for Edmonston and Douglas, Edinburgh. (Google Books full view) link

[GBPP] 1876 September 22, Providence Evening Press, “Second Edition: Three O’Clock: By Telegraph to the Press: Hell Gate. The Great Blast Coming. How All New York Trembles”, Page 3, Column 6, Providence, Rhode Island. (GenealogyBank)

[AFJG] 1881, Poems: Domestic and Miscellaneous by James Giles,
At Folkestone, Page 175, W. B. Whittingham & Co., London. (Google Books full view) link

[HCHB] 1896, The Edition Definitive of the La Comédie Humaine by Honoré de Balzac, Translated into English, [The Human Comedy], Volume 5, Page 74, Printed for Subscribers only by George Barrie & Son, Philadelphia,  Pennsylvania. (Google Books full view) link

[CPFD] 1917, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, [English Translation by Constance Garnett], Part III, Chapter VI, Page 279, From The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction, Volume 18 of 20, P. F. Collier & Son, New York. (Google Books full view) link

[JLTP] 1952 May 31, The Times-Picayune, Looking at Hollywood: Jerry Lewis in Golf Yarn by Hedda Hopper, [Chicago Tribune-N.Y. News Syndicate], Page 12, Column 5, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)

[ESCW] 1956 September 14, Collier’s Weekly, My Story (First of Three Parts) by Ed Sullivan, Start Page 19, Quote Page 19, P. F. Collier, New York. (Unz)

[FSSJ] 1965 December 12, St. Joseph News-Press, Sinatra At 50 Is Fun-Loving Giant Of Show Business by James Bacon, [Associated Press], St. Joseph, Missouri. (Google News Archive)

[SBDM] 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Page 146-147, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

[JLYD] 2011 June 11, The York Dispatch, Eastern York graduates remember their history, look to future by Wendy L. Garman, Section: People News, Record Number: 18254738. York, Pennsylvania. (NewsBank Access World News)

4 thoughts on “You Only Live Once – YOLO

  1. Sharif M. Youssef: Thanks for visiting the QI website and leaving a valuable comment. The 1784 date is the date of the edition of “Clarissa” that I was able to examine and verify with scans in the Google Books database. You are certainly correct that it was published earlier. I will try to access an earlier copy.

  2. Fabulous job on investigating this phrase! It was all very interesting (:

  3. No prob, Garson. I used to get tripped up by referencing date of the edition in the text rather than date of publication. I just had assumed to you transposed the 4 and 8. I do that sort of thing all the time. Great blog.

Comments are closed.