Today's Say What? takes a philosophical look at youth, with the help of some venerable members of the cast of the Harry Potter series.
You're only young once
No one seems certain of the origins of this saying, which is often described as either an old saw (that is, a familiar and trite saying) or a cliche. In fact, Cliches: Over 1500 Phrases Explored and Explained (St. Martin's Press, 1997) calls it a "twentieth century catchphrase cliche." It was certainly in use by the early 20th century: a novel titled You're Only Young Once (by Margaret Widdemer) was published in 1918, and a Hollywood movie in the "Andy Hardy" series (featuring Mickey Rooney) was released in 1937 with the same title. The saying has also been used several times as the title of a popular song, and abbreviated as YOYO, it's become descriptive of being open to new experiences.
One take on the meaning of this banality is that young people should not be blamed for acting unthinkingly or in a risky way because one can't expect them to have the gravity and caution of an older person and because they have to make mistakes in order to learn. Sometimes, in this usage, the phrase can be generalized to apply to more than one person:
"Why, Professor Sprout — what has got you so incensed?"
"Oh, Professor McGonagall! Those Weasley twins! I offered a special study hall for the Herbology N.E.W.T. candidates, and the minute I turned my back, they started distributing chocolate frogs, exploding bonbons, and those noisy sugar mice! And when I went back to confiscate the goods, the sacks were full of nothing but little green beetles, and they all flew up into the rafters!"
Professor McGonagall put her hand to her mouth. She didn't make a sound, but her eyes were crinkling at the corners. After a moment, Professor Sprout smiled wanly.
"Oh, well — I suppose they're only young once," she conceded.
Another common implication, reflected in the recent usage as YOYO, is that a person only gets a finite number of years to experience things, so one should embrace what life has to offer. This meaning is similar to the famous Latin phrase Carpe Diem, usually translated as "Seize the day":
"A smart phone?" said Mr. Weasley, incredulously. "Do you really think I should have one?"
"Why not, Dad?" urged George.
"You should get one, Arthur," said Mrs. Weasley. "After all, you're only young once."
There's a rather similar Japanese proverb that focuses on a somewhat later stage in life: the prime of your life does not come twice. The implication of this saying seems most similar to the second definition of this maxim.
A number of parodies of or expansions on this saying can also be found, such as "You're only young once, but you can be immature forever" (usually attributed to Australian feminist author and scholar Germaine Greer).
Youth is wasted on the young
Most sources attribute this saying to Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) — except for those who attribute it to Irish poet and author Oscar Wilde (1854–1900). In neither case was I able to find the name of an actual work that supposedly contain these words, although the Shaw attribution was apparently cited by newspaper columnist Franklin Pierce Adams (1881–1960), who is a fairly reputable source. The original version, according to Bartleby, was "Youth is a wonderful thing. What a crime to waste it on children."
This truism contrasts the strength, enthusiasm, and low wisdom of the young with the inverse attributes of their elders and concludes that young people don't know enough to make the most of their advantages. Like the previous saying, it's most often used by those who are no longer young themselves, but this aphorism also contains a strong note of resentment:
As the bell rang for the next class, Filch was nearly bowled over by one of the packs of students rushing to avoid tardiness. He looked crossly after their retreating backs: all that energy spent on such bad behavior. "Youth is wasted on the young," he remarked to Mrs. Norris, who lashed her tail in agreement.
It's not too surprising that similar sentiments are found in other languages. For example, the French saying si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait — 'If (only) youth knew; if (only) old age could" — is often suggested as the equivalent. Virtually the identical phrasing is used in Russian: Если бы молодость знала, если бы старость могла (pronounced, approximately, "Yesli b'iy molodost' znala, yesli b'iy starost' mogla"): "If only youth knew, if only old age could."
The viewpoint of both sayings is that of an older person who views youth with nostalgia, so if you use them in a story, you're best off having them said by such a character. When people are actually young themselves, they can usually think of plenty of reasons that it's not such a wonderful condition!
- You're only young once (English Club, "designed to help you learn English online")
- YOYO (Urban Dictionary)
- Japanese Proverbs: February 2010 (Nihonshock, a blog for "Japanese language learners, foreigners living in Japan, and anyone else with an active interest in the country.")
- Re: Youth is wasted on the young (Phrase Finder)
- Quotation: Youth is a wonderful thing. What a crime to waste it on children. (Bartleby, citing Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations, 1989)
- Russian proverbs (Wikiquote)