The Grammarphobia Blog

Speaking words of wisdom

Q: I’m confused about the expression “let it be.” Is it used in a positive or a negative sense?

A: We wouldn’t describe the usage as either positive or negative, though “let it be” is often used in the sense of letting a complicated or troublesome situation resolve itself on its own.

The verbal phrase “let be,” meaning let someone or something alone, first showed up in English in the 12th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED defines the phrase as “to leave undisturbed, not to meddle with; to abstain from doing (an action); to leave off, cease from.”

Here’s an example of the usage from The Legend of Good Women (circa 1385), a poem by Chaucer:

“Lat be thyn arguynge / Ffor loue ne wele nat Countyrpletyd be.” (Modern English: “Let be thine arguing / For love will hear no pleas against itself.”)

And here’s an example of the actual phrase “let it be” from Shelley’s 1822 translation of Goethe’s Scenes From Faust:

“Let it be — pass on — / No good can come of it — it is not well.” (Mephistopheles is speaking here to Faust.)

Of course the best-known use of the expression is from “Let It Be,” the title song of the Beatles’ last studio album, which was released in 1970:

“When I find myself in times of trouble / Mother Mary comes to me / Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.”

Paul McCartney has said the idea for the song came to him in a dream while he “was going through a really difficult time around the autumn of 1968.”

In The Right Words at the Right Time, a book edited by Marlo Thomas, McCartney says he “had the most comforting dream about my mother, who died when I was only fourteen.”

In the dream, McCartney says, “my mother appeared, and there was her face, completely clear, particularly her eyes; and she said to me very gently, very reassuringly: ‘Let it be.’ ”

“So, being a musician, I went right over to the piano and started writing a song: ‘When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me’… Mary was my mother’s name … ‘Speaking words of wisdom, let it be. There will be an answer, let it be.’ ”

McCartney says he wrote “the main body of it in one go, and then the subsequent verses developed from there: ‘When all the broken-hearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer, let it be.’ ”

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