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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, January 29, 2007

'It is what it is' isn't that simple

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Columnist

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."

The phrase, so ubiquitous in the still male-dominated spheres of sports, politics and business, was pegged as one of the most irritating catch phrases in a poll of advertising and marketing professionals conducted by the Creative Group of California. A couple of years ago, USA Today named it No. 1 cliche. And Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this year honored the phrase as the unprecedented back-to-back winner of his annual Trite Trophy.

Is what it is that irritating?

It is, at least to those who have heard the phrase repeated over and over by the likes of Britney Spears (on not strapping her child to a car seat), Then-White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan (on Dick Cheney's infamous shooting accident), and Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizinga (on coach Nick Saban's defection to Alabama).

As it is most commonly used now, "it is what it is" is the new "no comment," the converse of elaboration, the ultimate last five words. It's a statement of existence used to say diddly. (Think Jean-Paul Sartre isn't turning in his tombe knowing he could have condensed 860 pages of "Being and Nothingness" into five monosyllables?)

Yet, there's more to it. At its reductivist essence, "it is what it is" acknowledges, in typically male fashion, that the intrinsic nature of a thing cannot be articulated. The thing defines itself by its very being, no unpacking necessary (or possible).

And while its modern use seems to indicate a shirking of responsibility, one might also read into the saying a sort of stoic beauty. Whatever "it" is, you can't change it. Move on.

New York Times columnist William Safire traced the first use of the "it is what it is" to Nebraska State Journal columnist J.E. Lawrence, who in 1949 said of the new land American pioneers encountered, "It is what it is, without apology."

University of Hawai'i philosophy professor James Tiles can track it further than that, all the way to 18th-century theologian and philosopher Bishop Joseph Butler, who wrote: "Every thing is what it is, and not another thing."

But little of what Butler intended as part of the architecture of a complex philosophical argument has survived in modern usage. Think Terrell Owens was pondering the indefinability of individual existence when he dropped an IIWII to explain his 14 dropped passes this season?

"It's not really a philosophical doctrine, rather it's a way of brushing things off," Tiles said. "It resists the attempt to explain or describe."

OK, but surely the phrase has some sort of philosophical underpinning? Some mineable goodies for intellectual inquiry? Some level of Sartre-y smarty-ness?

"No," Tiles says, patiently. "It is what it is."

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com.