The Grammarphobia Blog

It is what it is, or is it?

Q: I cringe every time I hear someone say, “It is what it is.” This phrase is ridiculous and it fails to add any substance to a conversation. It was bad enough when I heard it only from friends and students, but now I hear it on the news, even on NPR. What is its origin? And when will it disappear?

A: This annoying and insipid expression (and it’s older than you think) has gotten a lot of attention in the last few years, often from people who are just as irritated by it as you are.

Gary Milhoces, in a December 2004 article in USA Today, picked “It is what it is” as the No. 1 sports quote of 2004, but noted that it wasn’t new even then. “Although the origin is uncertain,” he wrote, “it has been around for years.”

In March 2006, William Safire devoted his On Language column in the New York Times Magazine to the mushrooming usage. The first published reference Safire could find came from a 1949 column by J.E. Lawrence in the Nebraska State Journal.

Here’s an excerpt from Lawrence’s column, describing the way 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.”

Safire likened the expression to Popeye’s “I yam what I yam.” If it was mushrooming two years ago, when he wrote about it, it’s a mushroom cloud today. But the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary still doesn’t have any citations for it.

In 2007, the Creative Group, a California company representing marketers and advertisers, surveyed clients nationwide and asked them to choose the most annoying and overused of their industry’s clichés. They chose “it is what it is,” along with “outside the box,” “synergy,” “low-hanging fruit,” and others.

If advertisers and marketers hate it, then its fate is probably sealed.

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