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Monday, May 11, 2009

"It is what it is": Anatomy of an idiom

As I've begun to go to conferences and to learn what legal academic life is all about, I'm coming to appreciate some of the manners of speech and phraseology that are part of the culture.  The pregnant So..., the postmodern "stories" and "narratives" (often offered up inside tellingly non-neutral quotation marks), the orthogonalisms, the acutely self-conscious normative/descriptive parsings, the takings up of the second part first, and so many others.  For the most part, these turns of phrase and other methods of communal engagement are not at all objectionable to me -- in fact, there is a good deal to be said for the verbal and stylistic peculiarities of academic culture.  It's even interesting how one or another shard of argot seems to catch fire, live out its natural life, and expire.

At a few conferences this year I have heard the phrase, "It is what it is," uttered either by the speaker in chief or a respondent.  At one, it was used twice in the same session by two speakers, though with somewhat different connotations.  The idiom is not new to me (and probably not to many of you, too) and has been imported, I think, from the business and/or sports culture.  I know folks in the business world for whom the phrase is a staple, and I seem to recall Jason Varitek recently intoning it despondently after the Red Sox were embarrassed by the upstart-but-still-destined-never-to-win-it-all Tampa Bay Rays (and whatever happened to the evocative "Devil" modifier?).  

I've never much liked the idiom.  Here's a gloss on its possible meanings in an academic context, though probably there is substantial crossover to other spheres:

  • Conversation strangling: "It is what it is" may be meant as a suffocating move.  There just isn't anything left to say, and that should be obvious.  All reasonable inquiry has been exhausted.  The time for thought is past; now is the time for action.  What will you choose and what will you do?
  • Fatalistic: Here the phrase is meant to indicate something unchanging and immutable.  There is no point in intellectual resistance when one is up against the vast, impersonal forces of nature.  There is a kind of metaphysical inevitability in the point being made, one which reflects the sweeping and recurrent patterns of history.  From a description of the thing examined is derived a moral attitude toward it -- a resigned helplessness coupled with the power to predict the future and retrodict the past.
  • Hard-nosed commonsensical: the idiom can also mean something calculatingly pragmatic.  This sense is perhaps closest to that used by my business friends: if "it is what it is," better to cut one's losses and expend one's resources elsewhere, where the payoff is sweeter.  Banging one's head against a stone wall is not profitable.  It is the shrewd person who hears clearest the voice of practicality and who intuits when enough is enough.
  • Mystico-Essentialist: "It is what It is" is a contemporary echo, maybe, of "I am what I am" (God or Popeye, as you like).  In some subconscious way, the phrase is meant to impart a spiritual authority to the object -- the "it" (no need to complicate matters by calling it the id).  The "it's" essence has been uncovered and it is nothing less or more than the mute thing in itself.  Ok, ok, perhaps this last gloss is a stretch.

Each of these possible meanings is pernicious in its own way.  This is not to say that there is nothing insightful in each of them.  But I do think that "it is what it is" should not be used unthinkingly or reflexively.  It is not at all an innocent turn of phrase and I hope very much that it does not become one of our permanent verbal mannerisms (incidentally, a Westlaw search dredged up a few recent articles that use the idiom, including Pierre Schlag's latest incursion in the Georgetown Law Journal, where it is used to describe legal scholarship itself). 

To combat the ascendancy of this idiom, it might be worthwhile to introduce a few variations at that next conference; maybe,

  • Dadaist: "It isn't what it is."
  • St. John of the Cross/Via Negativa: "It is what it isn't."
  • Burkean: "It is what it has been."

Suggestions for others? 

Back to exam grading, which I am now discovering is exactly what it is.

Posted by Marc DeGirolami on May 11, 2009 at 09:22 AM | Permalink


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Idioms are always interesting and amusing because of their symbolic meanings but some idioms are really tough to understand.
Lilly, UK

Posted by: Idioms.in | Dec 21, 2016 2:32:47 AM

Marc, thanks for responding! As for your take on my comment, you got it right--I think that academics and judges should aspire to write (and speak) as lay people do. I understand that there are reasons why they do not, some necessary, others not. But I think it would be better, for reasons both moral and aesthetic, that they aspire to. As for the particular resonance or appeal of academic writing, I am still searching for it. By this I don't mean that all legal academic writing is terrible. I mean that it would be better if it were shorn, as much as it could be, of the conventions of the genre.


Posted by: John Greenman | May 14, 2009 8:44:04 PM

To me the all time best has to be Denny Green's:

"They are who we thought they were."


Posted by: Aaron | May 11, 2009 11:43:07 PM


I apologize--and please forgive me (perhaps hard to do inasmuch as I did it twice)--for mispelling your name.


Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 11, 2009 11:30:54 PM


One more thing by way of vivid contrast to the "mystico-essentialist" example, specifically, 'The "it's" essence has been uncovered and it is nothing less or more than the mute thing in itself.'--In the Indic philosophical schools, both orthodox and unorthodox, aphoristic sutras do not foreclose the possibility of further interpretation or explanation or elucidation, in fact, they typically demand bhasyas or "commentaries" that unpack their meaning, that endeavor to explain their enigmatic or elliptical content, so one does not read sutras unaided, without the various commentaries. So the various forumulas do not in any way stand on their own, such that their "essence has been uncovered and it is nothing less or more than the mute thing in itself."

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 11, 2009 11:22:52 PM


Perhaps, but without the "essentialist" part in both the Advaita and Buddhist cases, and not so much as imputing authority to just the object, for spiritual authority is accorded the subject as well (hence the Atman part of the formula, and the fact that only human beings, and not gods, realize nibbana...apart from the fact that there is no God in Buddhism). For example, 'I am what I am' is sometimes used to invoke or is understood in the context of the utter unknowability of God (as Jeff Lipshaw would remind us)--but in Advaita Vedanta, Brahman is not equivalent to God (except as saguna Brahman, which is not, or something less than, 'Ultimate Reality') nor is Brahman unknowable, hence the spiritual authority of the subject who has the requisite spiritual realization. Finally, the Non-Realism of Advaita Vedanta strikes me as rather different from standard formulas of "mystico-essentialism."

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 11, 2009 9:16:04 PM

Frank -- thanks for the comment and the link. On reading the piece from Slate, I was struck that the phrase seems now to be used in sports when there is something shameful to be avoided, and when the speaker doesn't want to say too much and uses the phrase as a dodge (that's the sense it takes on in the steroids mess, at least). Your comment also brought to mind an iron man triathlon I was watching years back (times were slow). There was a woman who had broken down psychologically in the most complete way -- she had been utterly devastated by the rigors of the race and she was weeping uncontrollably. A sports reporter noticed her agony, got right up in her face, and asked, "How do you feel right now? Are you going to continue the race?"

Patrick -- I was afraid that my last gloss was a stretch, but you have given me greater confidence in it.

John -- I am glad to have an opposing view, and I can sense that the disagreement runs deep. By "real language" you must have in mind some type of term of art, and it would be good to know exactly what you mean. One possible meaning of "plain language" would be something like "unadorned by cultural convention" -- stripped down of peculiarity and uniqueness, and accessible as universally as possible. If that is your meaning (and this is only a guess!) then I disagree. Judges have their robes (and ideally, their wigs); the legal academy has its written style. That is not the smallest part of what gives its ideas resonance and appeal.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | May 11, 2009 8:53:14 PM

I love the phrase, and use it often. I love it for its sound, the blunt assonance of it. And I love its economy. I use it to acknowledge that something is sad, or difficult, and cannot be changed. A common enough situation, I suppose. Since I want academic language to be as close as possible to real language, I use it in both contexts.

Posted by: John Greenman | May 11, 2009 7:26:23 PM

Baba Ram Dass (Richard Alpert): "Be Here Now"--Translation: "It is what it is."

Buddhist: It is what it is, which is neither what it was nor what it will be (This is stated in the context of describing the Buddhist conception of personhood as it relates to the effects of karma and the notion of rebirth: the person reborn is neither wholly the same nor wholly different than the person who died. In other words, what is, is in some measure determined by what was, and what will be, is in some measure determined by what is. Thus personhood cannot be adequately captured by the logic of identity and difference but rather is best understood in terms of a causal series or continuity sans any 'substance' or 'essence').

Advaita Vedantin: It is what it is, provisionally, and it is what it is not apophatically. In other words, the phenomenal world is neither wholly real nor wholly unreal and what is "ultimately real," namely (saguna) Brahman, cannot be linguistically expressed nor rationally understood, although we can in principle come to "know" (supra- or para-rationally as a species of nonpropositional knowledge and experiental realization) what is, as "Ultimate Reality" or Brahman (hence the formula from Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7, 'Tat Tvam Asi' तत्त्वमसि, or 'Thou art That,' or, 'Atman = Brahman'). This metaphysical and epistemological perspective is distinct in provocative ways from either Realism, Irrealism, or Idealism.

Student: "It is what it is."
Teacher: "It Ain't Necessarily So"

Incidentally, Leonard Nimoy was quoted using the phrase ('It is what it is') in an interview in today's LA Times:

Nimoy stands as "the figure of credibility" for the franchise, as Orci put it, which sounds like an unintended ding on William Shatner, the original Kirk and an actor who publicly lobbied for a role in this new $140-million film. Nimoy and Shatner remain good friends after all these years and one reason is an understanding of the benefits of selective silence.

"Bill and I have spent some time together, we have dinner periodically, and frankly, it's a subject that we avoid," Nimoy said. "It's not a fun subject right now. And I sympathize with him, because I was left out of the 'Next Generation' films. It is what it is." http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/cl-et-nimoy11-2009may11,0,5769627.story

I'm hoping the next installment (should there be such) will treat "Look, the bottome line is...."

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 11, 2009 5:09:34 PM

Nice discussion of yet another example of a vapid cliche colonizing discourse. But it does fit nicely into sports, where idiotic post-game queries are so common that athletes need some equally vacuous response. See, e.g.,

"In recent years, it is what it is has supplanted giving 110 percent and taking them one game at a time as the reigning sports cliché."

Posted by: Frank | May 11, 2009 5:05:07 PM

Anonymous, that's very good -- and nothing at all pernicious about it, other than your attribution to Lenny Kravitz what anyone must acknowledge is first and foremost the property of Yogi Berra.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | May 11, 2009 4:16:31 PM

I was just thinking of a plausible reply to this thread: "Yea, point well taken. I mean, I don't disagree with you. But, well, it is what it is."

It seems pretty clear that such a reply would be not only obnoxious, but even a little pernicious. So, I guess I agree with you.

I'm thinking at the next conference, a good reply to IIWII (especially if the meaning is: I don't want to argue with you) might be "It Aint Over Til It's Over" (Lenny Kravitz)

Posted by: anonymous | May 11, 2009 4:02:31 PM

The phrase is rampant in the finance industry. I hear it every day as an in-house lawyer for an alternative investment fund. Frankly, I despise it because it is a tautology and thus can mean anything or nothing depending on context. Most typically, it supposed to express a practical sentiment along the lines of, "We cannot change this thing [management decision / court ruling / regulation / etc] so we have to deal with it." But in reality, it is simply an anti-intellectual move along the lines of, "I don't want to analyze this further, we have to react to it." Nowadays, I sometimes respond to the phrase by saying, "Yes, it is what it is, unless it isn't" or [sarcasm] "Thanks for making me view the issue in a fresh light."

It is the second most abused phrase in finance, the first being "I don't disagree with you." That simply means that they want to join in your success if the outcome is favorable but also want to be free to later assert that they didn't go along with you if the outcome is unfavorable. When I hear that I say, "So you agree?" And if they say, "Well, no I don't necessarily agree, I simply don't disagree." To which I respond, "If you don't agree or disagree, then what are you adding to the analysis?"

There is a great book to be written about corporate speak.

Posted by: FormerVap | May 11, 2009 3:39:58 PM

Anonymous, thanks. I think your second meaning may be close to my first meaning, especially if "I'm not going to argue with you," implies that there is nothing worth arguing about -- here's my point, take it or leave it. As for pernicious, you are almost certainly right that any particular use of the idiom is not all that harmful. But I wonder whether increased usage of the idiom in academic contexts is healthy on a systemic level. The use of "So..." is completely innocuous, I think, but IIWII seems different.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | May 11, 2009 2:39:04 PM

There's brilliant use of "it is what it is" in the last season of The Office (or maybe it was season 3), for anyone who's a fan. Ryan (when he was still a big executive) uses it in a rapid-fire spew of business-speak. In that context (I think) he was using it to mean: "You don't have to believe my hype; this thing is so great it will prove itself."

In general, I have heard people use it to mean something like: "Whatever my arguments are; you can evaluate this component of them on its own, based not on what I say but on what you already know." That doesn't seem so pernicious. It may also be used to say, "I'm not going to argue with you," which may be a cop out, but usually isn't pernicious.

Posted by: anonymous | May 11, 2009 1:01:40 PM

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