Carpe #YOLO


September 1, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

Deadlines have a way of piling up on a person. The result can be cacophanous. wikicommons.500pix

Statue of the Bremen Town Band, Bremen, Germany. Courtesy Wikicommons.

As I mentioned last week, I’m currently working on a story for performance at Story Arts of Minnesota’s quarterly PROMPT series Saturday, September 6. Meanwhile, Wordsprout’s  Story Slam Season 5 begins on Tuesday, September 2.

This year the organizing principle around the monthly SlamMN! themes is “Stories Beyond the Cliché.”

The word cliché itself is a gallicism that dates back to 1882. It came, in turn, from the word for a printer’s stereotype, which used to just mean a plate or stencil made from moveable type.

Stereotype Printing. Image Courtesy of Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City

Stereotype Printing. Image Courtesy of Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City

The definitions of cliché given by Merriam-Webster include:

  1. A phrase or expression that has been used so often that it is no longer original or interesting;
  2. Something that is so commonly used in books, stories, etc., that it is no longer effective;
  3. A trite phrase or expression; also: the idea expressed by it
  4. A hackneyed theme, characterization, or situation
  5. Something (as a menu item) that has become overly familiar or commonplace.

We are, of course, being urged to go “beyond the cliché” given as a prompt each month.

A recent post on Women Writers, Women{‘s] Books by Eva Moreda discusses the opportunities exploring a cliché may present:

Certainly, all writers, including the great ones, use clichés. After all, complete originality is impossible and may not even be desirable. Greek, Roman and medieval writers were only too aware of it – back then, notions such as originality, innovation and individual authorship did not have the meaning they do now, and clichés, under the name of topoi, were made into a system, a repertoire for writers.

She gives the ‘ubi sunt’ topos as an example, in which the writer mourns the passing of time and the people, objects or landscapes he knew from his youth. Originality was not the point, she says: “It was rather about filling the ‘ubi sunt’ topos with meaning, to make it relevant to one’s readers, to make it come alive.”

So here is the first topos we are to fill with meaning: YOLO.

For those of you in my age bracket, I will spare you a lookup in the Urban Dictionary: it’s You Only Live Once. Actually you don’t have to look in the Urban Dictionary. You can go to the 13th edition of Britain’s Chambers Dictionary, first published in 1872, which now includes words like “YOLO,” “‘totes,” “amazeballs,” and “milf.” Old Noah Webster, despite some mild satire to the contrary, does not yet recognize the existence of YOLO.

Before I go beyond the cliché, I’m the sort of person who needs to get behind it, back to its origin, or root.

For this acronym I have to go all the way back to November 2011, where the first recorded coinage occurs in a song by the Canadian rapper Drake. The song – and the phrase – become hugely popular. By the middle of 2012 The Washington Post‘s Style blog is calling it “the newest acronym you’ll love to hate,” characterizing the term as “a sort of a teen interjection for ‘Carpe Diem.’ Only it’s short on the noble idea of living life to its fullest — and more focused on brash decisions and their consequences.”

This is what happens when you write #YOLO on a Math Quiz

This is what happens when you write #YOLO on a Math Quiz – Courtesy The Meta Picture

So much for topos.

By August of that year, overuse of the term is being cited as a “Yolocaust.” In September, aspiring rapper Ervin McKinness tweets “Drunk af going 120 drifting corners #FuckIt YOLO.”

For folks outside the United States, that’s 193 km/h.

Twenty minutes later, the car he is in runs a red light, skids out of control and slams into a wall. All five people in the car die.

Ubi sunt.

Most recently the phrase has been the subject of a parody by The Lonely Island:

They do a nice job of turning the phrase inside out, in the end deconstructing it as “You Oughta Look Out” –  so that the song becomes a response to being cautioned to death by your elders.

Yeah, ok. That could be me.

Personally, I prefer the phrase in its entirety, as it is attributed to the lovely lady below.

Mae West, from Go West, Young Man. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

From Go West, Young Man. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough. – Mae West

Which reminds me. How would Penelope feel about YOLO?

Penelope, who in the telling and retelling of the Odyssey, has in fact lived not once but many times, the stereotype of the faithful wife – an “edifying legend,” says Margaret Atwood’s Penelope. “A stick used to beat other women with.”

But here’s where the cacophany comes in. Because I spent so much time researching the rise and fall of YOLO that my Penelope story has not advanced, nor do I have a genuine story for SlamMN.

Sometimes I wonder if there are too many deadlines in my life.

I know enough about my own creative process to realize that it’s not just about putting in hours or reaching a particular word count. There are periods of incubation required for a real story to emerge.  I probably should have planned on skipping YOLO from the beginning.

Of course the good thing about SlamMN is that there’s a new theme every month. And plenty of opportunities for other stories. Plus, if you look at their theme schedule, you’ll see that what goes around, comes around.

The theme for the Grand Slam in July – if I qualify, is the “nobler” version of YOLO. Carpe diem: Seize the day.

A phrase which has recently taken on a new poignancy.

Robin Williams - Dead Poets Society. See the clip here.

Robin Williams – Dead Poets Society. See the clip here.

19 thoughts on “Carpe #YOLO

  1. Norah says:

    Thanks Paula, I learned a lot from this post. It very tragic about the 5 deaths in the aspiring rapper’s car. And of course, the sad loss of Robin Williams. Definitely carpe diem everyone!


    • There was a point yesterday in the middle of everything that I was learning when I wondered if some of it was worth knowing, Norah. The Drake song, which I liked to but did not embed, for example. Where Ervin McKinness is concerned, though it does not change the tragedy of wasted lives, the article link makes clear that he was not actually the driver of the car.


  2. Natasha says:

    This was a great post. The understated tribute to Robin Williams just makes it that much more poignant.


  3. Paula, I love word etymology stuff. A good post and very timely! (so to speak)


  4. I really enjoyed the ride you took me on, Paula. Informative, thought provoking and entertaining. Thank you.


  5. Annecdotist says:

    Thanks for enlightening me, Paula. I hadn’t even heard YOLO but will look out for it now. Was very interested in the origins of the word cliché as I’m just about to start reading a novel about the printing press – wonder if it will crop up there.
    Hope you manage to make your deadline.


    • You’re welcome, Anne. One of the articles I read said that cliché was also possibly a reference to the clattering noise the press made. Although personally, I think the second syllable of the word is too soft to be onomatopoetic.


    • lorilschafer says:

      I had heard the term, but was never curious enough to find out what it meant – figured it was just one of the many new texting abbreviations! I find it interesting that hashtags are also becoming part of the linguistic mainstream – although as you’ve demonstrated here, Paula, they, too, are subject to overuse.


  6. burke59 says:

    Great post–love the connection to Mae West and the background on the cliche itself! I happen to like cliches because they are so immediately recognizable, instantly conjure up an idea in a pithy way. I suppose that’s why they become cliches in the first place. They are time bound and become anachronisms, as I learned watching reactions in classrooms over the years to various phrases. Lots of luck on plowing through your ‘to do list’. Cheers!


  7. The Mae West quote and photo are brilliant! (As is your decision to include them, of course.)


  8. Thank you Jane. Not feeling particularly brilliant today, so that was a pick-me-up.


  9. Very interesting post! I’d often heard or seen the acronym YOLO but had never really paid attention to it. Also love the Mae West quote. And, I still can’t believe that Robin Williams is gone. Such a tragic and sad turn of events. He was such a gift to the world and will be missed.


  10. […] shallow, unoriginal. But cliches don’t have to be figurative –  last month’s YOLO, or “you only live once” is certainly meant to be taken […]


  11. […] written elsewhere about how a phrase, used over and over until it loses its meaning, becomes a cliché. Where “Give […]


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