Thursday, December 23, 2010

It is what it is

A couple of years ago, in the story Steroids Hearing Turns to Discussion of Linguistics, NPR's Mike Pesca reported on the phrase it is what it is.

Verbal Tofu.
In the report, Pesca quotes writer Barbara Wallraff, who calls it is what it is "the tofu of phrases" because it's a little mushy and it takes on the flavor of what's around it. (The report's audio is well worth listening to.)

The same year, the annual List of Banished Words contained the phrase, calling it avoidant, meaningless, pointless, and pervasive. (Since then, it is what it is seems to have fallen from favor somewhat, but it may or may not have been replaced by other commitment-phobic phrases.)

The phrase was not always used in such a mushy way. I was surprised to see it is what it is in Mere Christianity, which was published more than 60 years before the phrase made it onto The List.

C.S. Lewis uses the phrase twice in that book. Both times, he is speaking about the pointlessness of asking if something could have been or should have been some way other than how it is.

Lewis uses it is what it is to mean something solid, rather than something indistinct; to clarify, rather than to obscure; to make a point, rather than to avoid one.

And speaking of points, I have one here... somewhere.

Changing times require changing language. But it's one thing if our tentative speaking style comes out of a sincere consideration of others.

It's something else entirely if we're just protecting ourselves.



  1. I'll be adding Barbara's book to my ... birthday list, since Christmas is two days away. :-/

  2. You're so patient -- your birthday is six months away!

  3. Interesting. I guess I don't listen to enough White House interviews. I've only ever heard the phrase as a very solid statement about a concrete fact -never something non-committal. Thanks for sharing the interview.

  4. Instead of using the copout phrase "It is what it is", why not ask "what does IT have the potential to BE?


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