"It is what it is"

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"It is what it is"

Post by Erik_Kowal » Tue Sep 15, 2009 2:42 am

Can anyone shed any light on the history of this expression, which appears to be a shorthand form of "That's just how things are, whether you or I like it or not"?

I've only been aware of its existence here in the USA for about three years, but during that time the frequency with which it is used seems to have increased enormously, perhaps because it is vague enough and non-committal enough to be applied to just about any situation.
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Re: "It is what it is"

Post by trolley » Tue Sep 15, 2009 4:24 am

Sadly, it has certainly taken on a life of its own in the last couple of years. It made The Lake Superior State University's 33rd annual List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness (2008). Somehow, when Popeye said "I am what I am", it didn't sound like some meaningless cheap ass cop-out. "It is what it is" sure rubs me that way. I 've also had my fill of "back in the day" and "at the end of the day" (rant over).
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Re: "It is what it is"

Post by russcable » Tue Sep 15, 2009 7:01 am

Google News Archive has a hit back in 1838.
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Re: "It is what it is"

Post by Ken Greenwald » Thu Sep 17, 2009 5:54 pm

Erik, John, and Russ, The catchphrase / cliché IT IS WHAT IT IS completely passed me by. But after checking it out, I found that it is far more popular than I ever would have imagined, although it still hasn’t made it into any reputable slang dictionaries I could find (it does appear in The Urban Dictionary, a link to which I do not provide). I like Erik’s definition, which is in line with a comment on the subject made by lexicographer Grant Barrett:

IT IS WHAT IT IS: That's just how things are, whether you or I like it or not [Erik Kowal]; ‘take it or leave it’ or ‘there's nothing I can or want to do about it’ [lexicographer Grant Barrett]; This is how it is, good, bad, or indifferent. It’s a fact and there’s nothing one can do, or possibly would even want to do if one could; get used to it, live with it. [Ken Greenwald]
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I also noted the existence of a past tense version, IT WAS WHAT IT WAS (see 2009 quote below), although, since 1990, for example, it has been outnumbered by the present form in a Google News search by a margin of over 20:1. Also, and I didn’t look that hard, the earliest bona fide examples I saw of this form were from the late 19th century.

Although, nowadays IT IS WHAT IT IS seems to be looked upon mostly as a trivial and annoying catchword / cliché, it was not always so. Its earliest use, in fact, was in serious philosophical and religious writings dating back to the 17th century. John Locke, appears to have been the most famous early user, when he employed ‘it is what it is’ to define the concept of ‘essence’ (see 1690 quote):
<1677 “When I consider those difficulties that occur touching the Production of what we call the Soul, whence it is, what it is, what power it is that performs . . .”—The Primitive Origination of Mankind: Considered and Examined According to the Light of Nature by Sir Mathew Hale, page 156> [[see Erik Kowal's comment below]]

<1690 “‘Essence may be taken for the being of any thing, whereby it is what it is.’ . . . ‘That everything has a real constitution, whereby it is what it is, and on which its sensible qualities depend, is past doubt . . .’ . . . ‘What is, is:’ . . . and he knows that ‘it is what it is’ and not another . . .’”—An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke (1841), pages 293, 356, and 447>

<1735 “You know it is our manner of speech when we would cover any thing from any, and not answer any thing definitely to them, we say it is what it is.”—The Works of the Pious, Reverend and Learn’d Mr. Hugh Binning by Hugh Binning, page 48>

<1798 “I am far from censuring the plan of this tragedy. I rather believe that a nobler was never invented. Nay, it is not invented; it is what it is.”—The Monthly Review by R. & E. Griffiths, page 548>
Since then, it seems also to have been used in all sorts of discourse from the serious to the unserious and with implications ranging from the from negative to positive to neutral. I drew upon Google Books, Google News and other archives for the quotes listed below. And, as a barometer for the relative popularity of IT IS WHAT IT IS over the last few centuries, I also listed its Google News hit numbers. And, for this phrase one must be aware that it can sometimes be embedded in a sentence which renders it a false positive (e.g. the 1838 hit cited above by Russ read: ‘it is what it is recommended to be’)

In the 19th century IT IS WHAT IT IS had less than 100 Google News hits. The earliest example I found for this period was from 1835. And the first bona fide Google News example appeared in New York Times in the very first year of its publication (1851).
<1835 “I like it [[New York]] for its splendor, its wretchedness, its selfishness, its style, its fashion,—in short—to complete this sentence, and save trouble and accumulation of epithets,—I like it because it is what it is.”—The Knickerbocker, or New-York Monthly Magazine, Vol. V, page 134-135>

<1851 “The Courier and Enquirer declares its ‘belief’ in the Compromise of 1850. Whether it is just what it should have been in all its details, The Courier will not say; ‘but it is, what it is, and cannot, without destroying it, be made otherwise.’”—New York Times, 20 September, page 3>

<1870 “That it is what it is [[a resolution]] proves the cowardice of those who, though themselves willing to acquiesce in Republican action, are yet afraid to say so . . .”—New York Times, 26 September, page 4>

<1898 “The church is not what it should be but by the grace of God it is what it is.”—New York Times, 20 October, page 5>
For the entire 20th century IT IS WHAT IT IS produced less than 2000 Google News hits. And, in fact, it is only very recently that phrase ballooned into the colossus that it now appears to be (~1,700,000 general Google hits). A Google News search revealed that the explosion began at about the turn of the 21st century, and for the years 2000 to the present, the Google News produced over 25,000 hits – that's over 12 times its output for the entire 20th century.
<1908 “. . . but I do object to their resentment because it is what it is and not what they think it should be.”—Chicago Tribune, 25 October, page

<1933 ‘. . . he [Rev. Dr. Charles H. Parkhurst, militant New York crusader] issued a statement . . . declaring that there had been no change in Tammany since he first crusaded against the organization. ‘Tammany cannot change,’ he said. ‘It is what it is.’”—New York Times, 9 September, page 13>

<1964 “It is what it is. No frills.”—New York Times, 26 March, page 40>

<1991 “‘IT IS -- WHAT IT IS -- OUR HOMETOWN -- MUNDAY, TEXAS’: A quote from Munday Chamber of Commerce T-shirts state our thoughts.”—The Munday Courier (Texas), 17 October, page 3>

<1995” It is what it is: soft-core eroticism.”—Chicago Sun-Times 27 January, page 32>

<2000 “But people become watchful when they come into contact with somebody famous. They don't act like themselves any more. It's sad. I can't complain about it, but I kind of miss... it is what it is.”—The Guardian (London), 6 June>

<2003 “It is what it is. I wish it didn't happen, . . .”—Boston Herald, 29 August>

<2006 (article abstract) “The death knell of a catch phrase? It is what it is: If Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and pop star Britney Spears and wanna-be Donald Trump apprentice Lee Bienstock are all using the expression, then it is time for the expression to go.”—St. Petersburg Times (Florida), 11 July, page 1E>

<2009 “. . . the art of the sports cliché: sounding humble and gracious while saying almost nothing. . . . Witness Serena Williams’s press conference on Saturday night after threatening a line judge in her semifinal with Kim Clijsters — an outburst that cost Ms. Williams match point. . . . there was something deeply disheartening, even shocking, in hearing a player of her stature resort to the language of glib self-forgiveness. . . ‘It was what it was,’ she said twice, referring to the incident..”—New York Times, 15 September >
In searching for a possible explanation for the huge 2000s uptick in the use of the catchphrase / cliché IT IS WHAT IT IS, I stumbled upon the following Chicago Tribune article, which not only provided some possibilities (i.e. 2001 movie and a 2002 song, both titled It is What it Is; named 2004 ‘sports cliché of the year’ by USA Today), but which also proved to be a general gold mine on the subject:
Chicago Tribune, Apr 8, 2008, page 2

THIS CLICHÉ IS WHAT IT IS

Fox News asked Republican strategist Karl Rove last week whether the long Democratic primary race was good or bad for John McCain.

‘Well, first of all, it is what it is,’ Rove said. ‘You know, sometimes in politics, you can change things, affect things, but other times you just have to deal with it as it is.’

Rove employed one of English's fastest-spreading catchphrases: ‘It is what it is.’

It's the same phrase Amanda Overmyer used after finishing 11th on ‘American Idol.’ ‘I definitely had hopes of [the top] six or seven,’ she said last month. ‘But it is what it is.’

‘I'm not going to sit here and dwell on anything, good or bad, that happened in the past,’ New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after his team lost the Super Bowl in January. ‘It is what it is.’

Part regret, part resignation, part defiance and maybe part evasion, ‘it is what it is’ is becoming a catchy motto. It may be a tautology -- a repetitious definition, like ‘rules are rules’ or "the Cubs will always be the Cubs.’ But people turn to ‘it is what it is’ to help ease their angst about twists of fate.

The phrase's popularity is too recent to catch the attention of dictionaries or phrase books, but UrbanDictionary.com, an online dictionary featuring readers' definitions of slang words and phrases, has a definition ready: ‘a phrase that seems to simply state the obvious but actually implies helplessness ... as in 'it ain't gonna change, so deal with it or don't.'

I think it really means ‘take it or leave it’ or ‘there's nothing I can or want to do about it,’ lexicographer Grant Barrett, co-host of the public radio show ‘A Way With Words’ ( http://www.waywordradio.org), says by e-mail.

The phrase caught the attention of Congress during its hearings on steroids in baseball in February. Trainer Brian McNamee testified that when he said to pitcher Roger Clemens, ‘It is what it is, he meant ‘the truth is the truth.’

Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) reported to the chairman that the phrase was a regional saying.

‘I asked a New Yorker on the floor, and he said that is a not only Mr. McNamee expression but a New York expression for telling the truth,’ Souder said.

That's giving New York too much credit for a widespread cliche. If you're going to credit anyone, said the online magazine Slate during the hearings, you might have to start with John Locke, the 17th Century philosopher who said, ‘Essence may be taken for the very being of anything, whereby it is what it is.’

William Safire pointed to an 1851 edition of the New York Times that read, ‘The Courier and Enquirer declares its “belief” in the Compromise of 1850. Whether it is just what it should have been in all its detail The Courier will not say; ‘but it is, what it is, and cannot, without destroying it, be made otherwise.’

Only recently has ‘it is what it is’ vaulted into the realm of ubiquitous catchphrases, perhaps with a boost from popular culture references -- a 2001 movie titled ‘It Is What It Is’; a 2002 song by String Cheese Incident with the same title; a 2004 USA Today article naming ‘it is what it is’ as the sports cliché of the year.

Now everyone seems to take it for granted that ‘it is what it is.’ Which is strange, because often, things are not what they seem.”
Ken – September 17, 2009
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Re: "It is what it is"

Post by Erik_Kowal » Fri Sep 18, 2009 2:59 am

Great job, Ken! Thanks so much for all your hard work!

I have only one quibble, which relates to your 1677 citation:

“When I consider those difficulties that occur touching the Production of what we call the Soul, whence it is, what it is, what power it is that performs . . .”

As far as I can see this too falls into the category of 'false positive'. The punctuation makes it clear that 'whence it is' and 'what it is' are actually separate constructions.

But -- thanks again!
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Re: "It is what it is"

Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri Sep 18, 2009 4:47 am

Erik, Thanks for pointing this out. When I saw the comma in the 1677 quote, I had looked upon it as being similar to the use of the comma in the 1851 quote and somehow didn't carefully read what it actually said. My false positive has been duly struck out.

Also, thanks for the question. When I first read it, my impression was that it would be an almost impossible task to do a proper search on what appeared to be this obscure, silly-sounding phrase (which I had never even heard of) and I would be drowned in a sea of false positives and get nowhere. But this turned out to not be the case and the question was way more interesting than I had imagined.
_______________________

Ken – September 17, 2009
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Re: "It is what it is"

Post by Shelley » Tue Sep 22, 2009 8:48 pm

I would have sworn this cliche was invented in the early 1970's by Werner Erhardt. Kind of glad to know it was John Locke in the 17th century. Trolley, howsoever badly overused and worn-out, I still think it is useful. There really is no better way to say it. Like Yahweh's "I am that I am", (or Popeye's "I yam what I yam"), it tells it like it is.
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Re: "It is what it is"

Post by EurekaBizB » Mon Jan 18, 2010 1:32 am

I searched lala.com's 8 MILLION songs, and found 633 whose title is It Is What It Is. It's clearly a significant statement.

I think it's a positive sign that more people are facing reality and admitting/recognizing truth. Current reality may not be what's preferred/needed/wanted, but positively charged/minded people use the dissonance to identify what they do prefer/need/want and then choose to go toward that. (Some of these people also know that they'll reach their goal faster by not looking back at or talkinga bout what they don't want.) Negatively charged/minded people use the dissonance as proof that they (or someone else) cannot have what's preferred/needed/wanted.

Everyone always gets exactly--no more or less than--what they declare as their "is."
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Re: "It is what it is"

Post by trolley » Mon Jan 18, 2010 1:44 am

... and it's a great excuse for not trying to change anything. I don't deny that it is what it is, but it might not have to stay that way. How many blues songs were on that list?
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Re: "It is what it is"

Post by russcable » Mon Jan 18, 2010 8:20 am

EurekaBizB wrote:and found 633 whose title is
If you page through the 633 songs, you'll find that there are 111 songs named "it is what it is" and the other 522 "songs" are named something else but are by the 1 artist "it is what it is" (10 songs) or on 195 albums called "it is what it is".

It's more interesting that there are 195 albums and that they all seem to have issue dates of 2003 or later. Hmm, 522 songs / 195 albums = an average of 2 2/3 songs per album... I think they're being a little loose with the term "album" as well.
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Re: "It is what it is"

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Fri Jan 22, 2010 12:45 am

I like Shelley's comparison/s, and wonder if a French equivalent would cause problems?

(Qu'est-ce que c'est? C'est ce qu'il est.) (?)

Oh, and is John (Prescott) still John?
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