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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 it has been circulating for decades. The Associated Press news service in 1968 published an article titled “Fort Lauderdale: The City of Boats” which included a discussion of the creative names assigned to yachts and other watercraft. Emphasis in excerpts added by QI: 1

Naming the vessels, plain or fancy, is a chore that delights some owners. One fad is acronyms, initials of a phrase that spell a word of sorts.

The Pitoa translates “Patience is the Only Answer.” Tica is not named for an Aztec chieftain: It means, “This I Can’t Afford.” Yolo is short for “You Only Live Once.”

The above citation is the earliest evidence known to QI of the acronym together with its modern meaning. Thanks to top researcher Peter Reitan who located it and shared it with QI.

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 to produce: “We live only once”.

The earliest exact match for “You only live once” found by QI occurred in an 1896 English translation of the French work “La Comédie Humaine” (“The Human Comedy”) by the famed novelist Honoré de Balzac. The statement appeared in a passage describing a free-spending pair of characters: 2

… 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.

Here are additional selected citations and details in chronological order.
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Notes:

  1. 1968 June 30, Florida Today, Fort Lauderdale: The City of Boats (Associated Press), Quote Page 42, Column 3, Cocoa, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 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