What Is ‘It Is What It Is’?

On a recent podcast, Bill Gates asked me my least favorite word or expression. On the fly, I chose “It is what it is.” As I explained, “People say it when really what they mean is ‘I don’t care.’”

Since the podcast aired, I have been surprised to see this passing comment getting around quite a bit in the media. And the verdict on my observation seems — at least from the missives sent to me — divided just about down the middle.

Many tell me that they, too, have always hated the phrase for the same reason. I even discovered in writing this newsletter that my colleague Frank Bruni had taken the phrase to task last year (“the most degrading sequence of five words in the English language”) and William Safire had commented on it in The Times all the way back in 2006.

But others, often oddly heated up about the matter, have scolded me that I am misreading the phrase. To them, “it is what it is” means merely that one must sometimes make one’s peace with misfortune or difficulty rather than getting torn up about it. On this reading, “it is what it is” is essentially an English version of “que sera sera.”

It’s clear, for starters, that people are missing that I meant my observation as a basically trivial aperitif rather than the imperious pronouncement from on high that many seem to have taken it to be. But more important, while I am aware that “it is what it is” can be used in the “que sera sera” way, I do not agree that my interpretation of it is therefore incorrect. Rather, it is an example of how common it is in language for words and expressions to have more than one meaning, despite the fact that we rarely notice it.

The first encounter with the phrase that I remember was in 2005, when I was cast in a part in a play that was somewhat over my head. (You might think I’d be a good Bernard in Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” but you’d have to think again.) I thought I had mastered my lines for a rehearsal, but I wasn’t actually off-book the way I thought I was. My shortcoming had irritated the person with whom I shared the scene, and things had gotten a little messy.

Walking out after the rehearsal with someone else in the cast, I was beating myself up for not having done my job. But my inexperience wasn’t really his cup of tea. What he was interested in was seeing whether a woman in the cast he was attracted to was available to walk to the subway with him. Regarding my troubles, he detachedly intoned, “Well, it is what it is.”

In the podcast, I recounted thinking: What a gorgeously chilly way of saying “Your problems don’t matter to me.” He was not using the phrase’s other, “que sera sera” meaning, counseling me to accept how things unfold in a Zen-like way.

Those who think of the Zen version of “it is what it is” aren’t wrong, however: It is often used that way when referring to oneself, for example. But those who agree with me that the expression can be dismissive are also correct in thinking of dismissive exchanges such as my own. “It is what it is” has two meanings.

The issue here is language change. The expression “it is what it is” began as counsel about coping. However, an implication floats over the proactive, constructive intent of the phrase: its element of distance, coolness, indifference. Implications like this can take over the word or expression’s meaning and create either a new meaning or at least an alternative, 2.0 version.

To someone in the 19th century, “wonderful” meant “evincing wonder.” But the wonder in question is usually a kind of admiration rather than contempt, and that hanging implication moved “wonderful” into its contemporary meaning of “marvelous.” The same kind of drift led the mild, distancing connotation of “it is what it is” to, in some cases, take over its earlier meaning and instead express, “I don’t wish to engage that, and we shall move away from the subject.”

Crucially, the 1.0 and 2.0 versions of a word or expression often have a way of coexisting, at least for a while. Context determines which meaning is intended. But if we have occasion to think of the word or expression in isolation — for example, when someone like me mentions it on a podcast — we may be tempted to think of it as having only one meaning.

Questions about the meaning of “woke” are an example. It began as a positive term referring to an awareness of abstract but powerful sociopolitical arrangements that disempower too many people. However, over the past several years, it has taken on a pejorative tone. Some point to conservatives having subjected wokeness to ridicule; others trace the sea change to impatience with the subset of woke people given to shunning, pillorying or dismissing from employment those of differing politics. However, “woke” as a neutral or positive term has hardly vanished — “stay woke” T-shirts, using the original meaning of the term, still thrive. The word now means, in essence, two things.

Sometimes it happens more quietly. For instance, someone wrote me recently wondering why we now use “reach out” to simply mean “contact” — e.g., “for advertising requests or just to reach out” — when in the past it typically referred to making a special effort to communicate with someone in pain or with whom one had quarreled. Although both meanings still exist, the original one has become diluted into the newer, more general one. It’s a common process: The word “bird” used to refer only to baby birds but now describes all of them.

Alternatively, words’ meanings can grow more specific. “Hound” used to mean any dog but now represents a subset. And I have written here about how tweens are using “satisfying” in a new way, referring specifically to sounds and tastes that “go down well” based on autonomous sensory meridian response, or A.S.M.R., videos. In conversations I had after that newsletter, I found that some readers assumed I was saying that the original meaning of “satisfying” was now extinct — the grand old “one meaning” temptation again. But no, it’s that now we have versions 1.0 and 2.0 of the word: a satisfying film, on the one hand, and a 10-year-old calling the sound of a pickleball thwacked by a racket “satisfying” on the other.

This isn’t the first time I have created a kerfuffle of sorts when describing a word’s new meaning. Many years ago I noted that the word “thug” has acquired an implication of Blackness and can sometimes almost be heard as a genteel way of using the N-word. The pushback was furious: Legions of people thought I was saying that anyone who uses the word “thug” in any way must be hurling a kind of slur.

It was the 2.0 problem, as always. Of course, “thug” can still be used as a race-neutral word referring to a miscreant. We can call federal law enforcement “jackbooted thugs” or use the term to refer to Islamic State terrorists. But American discussion has also developed a sense of a “thug” persona, propagated partly by hip-hop iconography, which is specifically Black and even embraced by many Black people as a kind of proud self-expression. The phrase “thug life,” credited to Tupac Shakur, gets at this final meaning, which is racial but not pejorative. In any case, the days when “thug” meant only a ruffian or rascal are long past us; there is a newer meaning, more specific than the older one: thug 2.0.

Language change is not merely Old English becoming Modern English or new slang popping up. It involves words and expressions often straddling both earlier and newer meanings, such that designating them as meaning solely one or the other can shed more heat than light. But it’s how words have always been and always will be. As in, well … It is what it is.

John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

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