Sun, Mar 05, 2006 - Page 9 News List

It is what it is: Using `tautophrases' to duck and deflect

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

"We went through it thoroughly yesterday," Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said somewhat testily after being badgered recently about US Vice President Dick Cheney's hunting accident.

"It is what it is, and I think it's time to move on," he said.

"I made a mistake," said the pop icon Britney Spears, who was photographed driving with her baby son on her lap instead of strapped in a seat, "and so it is what it is, I guess."

The coach of the US hockey team, arriving at the Turin Olympics, concerned about his travel-worn players going up against a well-rested Latvian squad, said in a resigned tone, "We're going to do the best that we can. It is what it is."

The phrase, racing through the language, shows no sign of tiring. The first use I can find is in the Newspaper Archive, from a column by J.E. Lawrence in the Nebraska State Journal in 1949 about the way that pioneer life molded character: "New land is harsh, and vigorous, and sturdy. It scorns evidence of weakness. There is nothing of sham or hypocrisy in it. It is what it is, without apology."

Databases show a steady buildup in usage toward the end of the 20th century. A burst of the sentence's activity followed Billy Frolick's movie with that title in 2001. The jam band the String Cheese Incident used it a year later.

Gary Mihoces of USA Today examined a dozen uses of the cliche by sports figures in 2004. On Election Day 2004, when exit polls showed the Democrat John Kerry in the lead, Time magazine reported that President George W. Bush, avoiding any show of pessimism to his aide Karen Hughes, said only, "Well, it is what it is."

Yahoo shows 1.1 million hits to date; the sustained popularity of the phrase is remarkable. Does "it is what it is" have a definition that could be called definitive? No; as another student of the third-person singular, present indicative of the verb be might put it, it all depends on what the meaning of It is what it is is.

What it is not is a redundancy; the Squad Squad, constantly on guard against the unnecessary repetition of an idea in a different word, can relax. Instead, it is a deliberate tautology (the Greek tauto means "the same") designed to define itself by repetition of itself. Because it needs a name, let's call it a "tautophrase." Often accompanied by a shrug, it is used to deflect inquiry with panache.

Few people say no comment anymore; that phrase was made famous by Winston Churchill in 1946, who told reporters after a White House meeting with US president Harry Truman and a US diplomat: "I think `no comment' is a splendid expression. I got it from Sumner Welles."

It is rarely used by politicians today because it is too gruff a cliche, slamming the door petulantly, a brushoff by a clumsy amateur. The trick to assertive deflection is in the ducking of a question in a way that sounds forthright.

In the synonymy of tautophrasal evasion, What's done is done implies an irretrievable action. Boys will be boys (often followed by a heh-heh) means "a natural act requires no further explanation," and That was then, now is now means "changing circumstances make the need for a different position self-evident." The semitautologous It speaks for itself is a way of saying "Do not look to me for amplification of the obvious." The duplicative same-old, same-old waves off nagging questions by pretending boredom.

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