YOLO – Keyword of the 21st Century

by Jaana Nebbe

The keyword YOLO challenges the perception of living after a plan or choosing the straight-lined way. It wants to animate people to do things they have thought they could never do.

You might find this interesting: 

– https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIQxFDixoQk

– http://www.derwesten.de/zeusmedienwelten/zeus/fuer-schueler/zeus-regional/niederrhein/wayne-yolo-swag-was-bedeuten-diese-woerter-id7927094.html

The location of this keyword would be our everyday life, including face to face communication, as well as the internet with its social networks and chatrooms. Often people compare the word Yolo with the old word of Latin derivation Carpe Diem. This one reflects the good old ideals of the civil society, like to pursue your duties so that you can live a calm and peaceful life. It makes clear that human life is not endless and you should notice every day as a possibility. But for a lot of people the word Yolo means something different.


It’s more focused on individual and insurgent actions. You can find the basic principle of this lifestyle in the hippie movement of the 1960s. I think a fact which is very new with YOLO is that you can describe this kind of phenomenon compressed in one word. A big group of people, also beyond the border of teenagers, know what this summary of initial letters of the sentence “You Only Live Once“ , express and with what kind of power it comes along. The power of YOLO could be positive as well as negative. The positive power is that it gives a name to individual and self-determined action and life. I think you can see YOLO as a reaction of the youth to the circumstances of our world. Tomorrow everything has to be bigger and more amazing than today. Our generation already knows with what kind of problems we have to deal in the future. There will be ecological as well as social problems the youth will have to handle. So YOLO can represent an acknowledgement that individual decisions are still possible and important, even in times of change in our society. This is an important point which makes clear why Yolo is not the same as Carpe Diem. The negative power is that there are people who think YOLO could be a kind of excuse for dangerous and illegal action. They trespass the border of law and do irresponsible things. Often this has to do with “testing” themselves. But there is also a political interpretation of this keyword beyond the mainstream. For example in connection with “Operation Harekate YOLO” which means something like “front straightening”.

It describes the first big military campaign in the north of Afghanistan fighting against the Taliban.

So you can see that you can connect Yolo with a lot of situations of today’s world, which makes clear why Yolo is an important keyword of the 21st Century. It has a big power in different contexts, cultures and languages. Maybe this power comes especially from the word’s popularity. The first time Yolo got famous in the general public was because of rapper and songwriter Drake, with a song called “The Motto”.


Furthermore the word Hashtag, another keyword of the 21st century helped, Yolo to become more and more famous.


With this symbol it was possible to address people directly with YOLO and helped this word to became public. A word which is also good to describe the main idea of YOLO is marriage. The basic principle of YOLO is to risk something before it’s too late and you could miss it. So many young people don’t know which motivation should stand behind a marriage but they just do it to know how it feels. There is also another connection between YOLO and marriage. In many countries people get married not because they love each other but their parents think it could be useful. In this context YOLO is the opposite of marriage, because it stands for individual freedom and your own decisions and chances. So you begin to realize that you always need other keywords to describe one of them.

Back to the main meaning of the keyword YOLO you can say that its context is completely ironic in our world today. We plan every detail of our future and get controlled, which has nothing to do with the basic principle of the word. Maybe we long to something crazy and spectacular. Everything in our life should be amazing and unique, not trivial. The ironic fact is that we are unique no matter what happens. YOLO cannot just be an escape from the pressure society brings upon the youth. It can also bring a pressure by itself, that young people need to test themselves and their individuality with crazy actions.

For them this word creates a reality in which it’s normal to trespass borders. I think with the word YOLO there is also always a kind of fear involved. A fear to miss something or to be not exciting enough. Often people say YOLO to express sarcasm, for example if someone risk something but another person thinks it’s not spectacular enough or just stupid.Furthermore you can find a lot of cartoons which spoof the word if you search it in google images.

Nemo Oreos

At the end you can say that YOLO indicates a phenomenon which has also existed in the generations before but with creating a real word now it has become stronger. So hasn’t come up because of the conditions of this century but it has got a different significance. If the word YOLO would not exist, there would be another description for this behavior and the fact behind YOLO would definitely still exist. The fact that in our culture young people want to break out of the norm and try to take their chances. They want to rebel against specifications of our society, how our future has to be and want to focus their life on their individual decisions. For our generation this behavior is called Yolo.

Annotated bibliography: 

1. This book tries to explain the word Yolo in a funny and not very serious way. It wants to give advices how you can live the Yolo lifestyle and what kind of behavior and actions are not Yolo.


2. A lot of entries in this dictionary are personal definitions and some of them are ironic but for a first impression of the opinion of the people about Yolo this one is pretty good.


3. This video shows a survey of the familiarity of the word Yolo. It makes clear that a lot of people heard about it but not everybody is sure what it really means. There are a lot of disaccords about the word and this video represents a great entrance for a detailed discussion about the meaning of Yolo.


4. The book “Jugendsprache zu Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts” from Nadine Oehnhausen deals with the question what stands behind the language of the youth. Do they just want to shock with their expressions or do they want to take a stand agains something. It analyze the way of communication of young people.


5. Even if it’s an wikipedia link, this one gives a good first overview about the political interpretation of Yolo concerning Operation Harekate Yolo. It’s a good first entrance for more detailed researches about this theme.



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