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February 15, 2008

What Is 'It Is What It Is'?

There were many bizarre quotes from Roger Clemens's and Brian McNamee's testimony before a congressional committee—"Mr. Clemens bled through his designer pants" and "Mr. Clemens, according to your account, Mr. McNamee injected your wife in your bedroom without your knowledge" were some of the better ones—but the one that has caused the most confusion is a line from McNamee's taped phone call with Clemens: "It is what it is."

McNamee tried to make the case that this tautological phrase proved that he was telling the whole truth. Said McNamee, "I thought I was being taped, so I used my jargon. 'It is what it is' was how I was saying I told the truth." Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), who is "not a prototypical New Yorker," was baffled by the phrase allegedly used commonly by New Yorkers, and sought further exploration into its meaning.

Venn diagram
A (very) informal Gelf investigation might offer the insight that Representative Souder was seeking. While not endemic to New York in particular, the vapid phrase is used most often by athletes, entertainers, and jackasses— many of whom happen to live in New York (see chart).

There is another group, whose use of "it is what it is" possibly exceeds the efforts of all the other groups combined. That group is comprised of people who complain about the phrase's over-usage. In fact, the top Google toolbar suggestion for the word to follow the phrase is "banned." Someone at Lake Superior State University has gone to the lengths of outlawing the phrase from the English language.

In the Honolulu Advertiser, Michael Tsai writes, "If it were up to some people, a gentleman of uncommon honesty and insight would be burning in eternal damnation for having invented that most viral of modern phrases, 'It is what it is.'" According to Tsai, in addition to the ban, it has been voted most irritating catch phrase in a poll of advertisers, and named number one cliché by USA Today. Most haters of the phrase say their ire is due to I.I.W.I.I.'s ubiquity, its circular nature, and its meaninglessness. Says Jeffrey Skrenes of St. Paul, Minnesota, "This pointless phrase, uttered initially by athletes on the losing side of a contest, is making its way into general use. It accomplishes the dual feat of adding nothing to the conversation while also being phonetically and thematically redundant."

But is it really meaningless? If the phrase really meant nothing, then why would anyone use it? Flak Magazine (no relation) teased out some of its uses. As a statement of resignation, it was used to express one ESPN the Magazine author's sad realization that soccer will never take off in the States. (Think of it as, "What it is, so it will be.") Kobe Bryant used it as a statement of resoluteness, as in, "It is what it is, and I want to move on with the team we have here." Perhaps the most famous such usage until this week was Al Gore's bitter concession, "I strongly disagreed with the Supreme Court decision and the way in which they interpreted and applied the law. But I respect the rule of law, so it is what it is."

But as language maven William Safire points out, the real success of the phrase has been as a more-philosophical alternative to "no comment." He cites George W. Bush using it on Election Day 2004, deflecting comment when he was down in the polls. Safire's earliest citation comes from a 1949 newspaper column about pioneer life. Tsai finds a source that goes all the way back to 18th-century theologian and philosopher Bishop Joseph Butler, who wrote: "Every thing is what it is, and not another thing." While it's not a direct quote, you could even find a similar line in the Bible, when God first introduces himself to Moses as, "I will be what I will be."

One thing Gelf could not find was any usage that matched McNamee's claim that it means "I'm telling the truth,"—in New York or anywhere else.

Aside from his comment about the speaking habits of native New Yorkers, Representative Souder had another, more significant point that seems to have been lost in the mess of nanny-tampering and butt-bleeding. Souder called for an investigation into the owners' culpability for the steroid era, saying, "It gets at the core question about whether we can trust baseball. If it's true that the owners wanted to cover up. … That's a very serious allegation." If Congress was serious about ending baseball's steroid problem, they would be looking at the conditions and the blind eyes that made steroids so prevalent for so long in the sport, and not focusing their efforts (and taxpayer money) on the legacy of a single player. If they wanted to get rid of steroids, they could mandate independent testing with threat of taking away the MLB antitrust exemption. But they won't do that because further intervention isn't in anybody's interest—not Congress's, not the players', and not baseball's. What can you do? I.I.W.I.I.

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