The phrase ‘it is what it is’ has exploded in popularity.
I might not have noticed except it’s a phrase my Mom has been using my whole life; I may be overly-sensitized to it. I first noticed a surge in popularity towards the beginning of the US pandemic-related shutdown when it became a popular meme. True to many memes, people were using the phrase in everyday life – without knowing it had gone viral on TikTok.
The phrase underwent its own exponential growth when the U.S. President controversially used it to describe the death toll from the COVID pandemic. Political allegiances aside, uncommon phrases often become more popular when a President says them. In fact, ‘it is what it is’ got a bump in popularity when Al Gore used it to describe his loss to George W. Bush.
A similar bump in usage came as a result of the 2001 film by Billy Frolick titled – you guessed it – It Is What It Is.
According to no less an authority as William Safire, the earliest known reference to the phrase happened in the Nebraska State Journal in 1949:
New land is harsh, and vigorous, and sturdy. It scorns evidence of weakness. There is nothing of sham or hypocrisy in it. It is what it is, without an apology.
Although there’s no definition in most dictionaries, the essence of ‘it is what it is’ is a sense of frustration or resigned acceptance. In most cases, it’s used as an answer to a question that can’t adequately be answered. I always imagine the speaker is sighing or shrugging when they say it.
It’s this sense of helplessness which has always bothered me about the phrase. (That, and the fact I heard it hundreds of times growing up.) Saying ‘it is what it is’ is tantamount to giving up. In this sense, it’s surprising that the phrase is popular here in the US, as we tend to be optimistic about the future.
Since language influences culture, I would expect English would have a phrase closer to the Spanish “que será, será” which means ‘what will be, will be.’ While it’s similar, the Spanish phrase is written in the future tense and suggests a more hopeful outcome. I’m hopeful the English language will evolve to have a similar optimistic phrase but it probably won’t.
After all, it is what it is.