Yes, But What IS It?
I’m often asked what I do in my spare time, when I’m not busy condemning in print the errors and improprieties of my fellow man. After all, as the saying goes, all work and no play makes the Curmudgeon a dull person. I certainly don’t want to be dull. So I make sure to leave plenty of time for other, more leisurely activities like daydreaming, at which time I ponder little puzzles that intrigue me. For example, I like to run through all the stupid things people say and try to decide which is the stupidest. It is, of course, an inexhaustible pastime since (a) there’s no absolute answer and (b) people keep saying new stupid things. So I’m set for years of entertaining relaxation. Who says I don't know how to have fun?
At present, a frontrunner in my little mental contest is undoubtedly that meaningless arrangement of words, “It is what it is.” What annoys me isn’t that the statement is untrue, but rather that it's so obviously true as to not require utterance. Telling someone that “it is what it is” is about as enlightening as letting him know that a house is a house, a day is a day, or a chicken is a chicken, all of which is true and none of which need be stated. When the theme song from the 1960s television comedy Mr. Ed proclaimed that “a horse is a horse,” the unneeded information was immediately followed by the lyric, “of course, of course,” commenting on the self-evidence of the earlier statement. Even back then, people knew that things were what they were.
Now, what’s so wrong, you may ask, with stating the obvious? Well, beside the fact that it wastes everyone’s time and squanders valuable conversational real estate, statements such as “It is what it is” are particularly galling in that they masquerade as deep philosophical observations, meaningful reminders intended to explain the challenges of life . . . which they are not and do not. And it’s that outrageous pretense of profundity that really chips away at the Curmudgeon’s patience. “It is what it is” means nothing. And therefore, it helps nothing. It’s another of those statements that merely offers insulation from the discomfort of not knowing what to say.
There are other stock responses to disappointing or challenging circumstances that at least carry the potential of offering something helpful. For example, “I suppose it could be worse” may be a timely reminder that gives perspective. “What can you do?” might persuade someone not to waste time and agitation on something that can’t be changed. But “It is what it is” . . . what is that? Lazy, that’s what it is. Pseudophilosophical blabber. Dry fact presented as enlightenment.
And the phrase offers neither description nor explanation. Tonight for dinner I’ll be cooking a native dish from the old country, qzashomuglicmo. What’s qzashomuglicmo you ask? It is what it is. Glad I could clear that up for you. You come home at the end of a hard day to discover your neighbor and her entire extended family have moved into your apartment. “What is this?” you may rightfully ask. “It is what it is,” they all respond. Just like “whatever” (another favorite of mine), “It is what it is” seeks to excuse the speaker from any obligation to make sense or account for anything.
Honestly, the more I think about it, the more annoyed I get. So the next time someone says “It is what it is” in my presence, I’m going to dump a hot steaming bowl of qzashomuglicmo on that person’s head. And when that person shouts “Hey! What’s this?” I’ll holler back, “It’s qzashomuglicmo! See? That’s specificity!”