"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.
Not tautophrases but in the ballpark are I don't have any more information on that, which flatly pleads ignorance, and I'll have to get back to you on that, which gains the evader only temporary respite. Let's move on, previously the most popular refusal to provide more fuel to a continuing embarrassment, connotes, "I don't have time to waste on pursuit of this exhausted subject."
For additional nuance, I turn to Joe Pickett, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary.
"It is what it is is also a way of expressing philosophical resignation over a disappointment, of saying that the situation just has to be put up with. Athletes will say it about a missed catch or a bad call by the referee; it means that they don't want to dwell on the situation. A variation of It is what it is is What's done is done; you'd never say that about a person, but you can say She is what she is. It reminds me of a phrase rampant here in Boston: `That's just Manny being Manny,' to refer to the weird behavior of the Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez. It must be a variation on `Let Reagan be Reagan.'" (That tautophrasal political slogan was based on the 1981 Let Poland be Poland.)
IIWII, to use space-saving initialese, has another sense of a mild put-down, as if to say, "That's all you can expect." A Denver Broncos wide receiver who was short on receptions last year was described in the sports pages of the Denver Post as having reached the "he-is-what-he-is stage." But another tautophrase intended to cut off further debate or questioning carries a powerful note of finality. The linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, whose book on right-wing rhetoric is coming in June, steered me to Chapter 19, Verse 22 of the Gospel according to John. The Roman Pontius Pilate, asked to amend the words he had ordered inscribed on Jesus' cross, rejected all objection with "What I have written I have written."
In these reflections on deflections, my favorite assertion of tautophrasal philosophy was by Popeye the Sailor Man in a 1930s comic strip by Elzie Segar: "I yam what I yam an' that's all that I yam!" (That statement speaks for itself.)
Will the vogue use of It is what it is become fixed in the farrago of unresponsive responses? The answer is in its own future tense, sung in the Spanish Que sera sera: "What will be will be."
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