Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

Are you tired of hackneyed phrases? Threadbare, moth-eaten sayings that have been used so tediously for so long that they’ve lost whatever meaning they ever had? Me, too. Recently I heard someone say “It is what it is” for the third time in a single day. If you look it up, you might find a reference to “It is what it is” in Kansas in 1949 and another in a John Locke essay from 1690. I don’t know when I heard it first, but I cannot help but notice it is very popular with coaches and players who have just lost a game. A NON-explanation, it may have been shaped by television cartoon shows of the 50s, where Popeye’s signature catchphrase translates as “I am what I am and that’s all that I am” (fans know when Popeye growled it out, “am” came out as “yam”). Only later in life did I realize Popeye was an existential philosopher.

Regular readers know I like to investigate commonplace things to see what’s behind the obvious

They also know every time I go looking, I find explanations vary widely, depending on how and where I look. After reading dozens of sources to see what they had in common – while also hoping to find some original thinking – here is what I found:

Clichés, catchphrases, and diversionary tactics

Urbandictionary.com fires both barrels when it says the phrase “it is what it is” is a “trite, overused, and infuriatingly meaningless cliché used by unsophisticated people who mistakenly believe they are adding some deep, meaningful insight when all they are offering is a senseless, unwarranted repetitiveness.” Quite a start, huh?

According to wordhippo.com, it means there is nothing more to say or do. Yourdictionary.com calls it a great way to show a readiness to forge ahead. “It has nothing to do with readiness,” says Linda Sapadin in her article on psychcentral.com. Dr. Sapadin, who specializes in helping people overcome self-defeating behaviors, says the phrase is a diversionary tactic deployed to convince us there is no action that can be taken – especially when action is not only possible but also preferable.

It’s an expression used to characterize a challenging situation that cannot be changed, says dictionary.com. “No it’s not, it can be changed – you’ve just given up,” says aconsciousrethink.com, adding that those who use it reveal themselves as quitters. Guff.com, explaining one cliché with another, tells us it’s the thing you say when you can’t fix your dumpster fire of a life.

USA Today said it was the number one cliché of 2004

Sportswriter Don Powell, writing as his alter ego, Dr. Cliché, says athletes use it to mean “it happened, it’s done, let’s forget about it.” USA Today says it’s a line used by coaches to say “Case closed, next question,” when they don’t want to talk about their failures any more.

Major Andrew Steadman says he found U.S. Army soldiers under his command were using it as excuses for their incompetencies. He says the use of the phrase “abdicates responsibility, shuts down creative problem-solving, and concedes defeat.” Leaders use it as a handy excuse, he said, to explain away their personal failures as unavoidable circumstances.

Circular reasoning

Fallacies are deceptive, misleading, and false notions. One fallacy that was popular for a very long time was the earth is flat. The American Psychological Association says “it is what it is” is a type of information fallacy in which the conclusion is no different than what was assumed as the premise of the argument. The proposition is supported by the premise, which is supported by the proposition, which supports the, well, you know, creating a circle where no useful information is being offered. I think of it as a rowboat with only oar, going around and around but getting nowhere.

Department of Redundancy Department

“It is what it is” is needless repetition without imparting clarity or insight. It is as meaningless as “whatever,” another beaten-to-death bit of claptrap that speakers use to indicate their indifference. Those who utter either one of them expose themselves as shallow thinkers who desperately want to change the subject. “It is what it is” adds nothing and abdicates responsibility. Enough is enough.

My take on this shallow, dismissive remark?

When colleagues and employees tell you “it is what it is,” beware. They are either unoriginal thinkers parroting mindless clichés or people denying responsibility for their failures. Try what I do when I hear someone say it – ask them “What do you mean by that?”

Want to look at old things in new ways and see the commonplace in more detail?

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Legendary West Coast funk band Tower of Power said, “Hipness is what it is. But sometimes hipness is what it ain’t.” Watch the live stage performance video here.

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