It Is What It Is. Except When It’s Not.

“It is what it is,” goes the latest business buzzword. Sounds profound, until you start to think about it. The profundity comes from the Biblical description of God speaking to Moses when Moses asked for His name. “I am that I am,” the Bible says.

Or, perhaps more irreverently, Popeye, of spinach-eating fame, used similar words to describe the inevitability of his condition, “I yam what I yam.”

After listening to about 500 repetitions of the phrase, I’ve discovered several meanings. Most commonly it means, “Drop the subject,” followed closely by, “I don’t care, and I’m not talking about it any more.” It is

Iroquois false face mask from

Iroquois false face mask from

clearly a conversational door-closer.

In a few other variations, it can mean, “I don’t care,” “interpret it any way you want,” and “things aren’t going to change.” Occasionally it means, “Because I said so, that’s why.”

“It” is never defined, but I’m of the opinion that ‘it’ is hardly ever what it is. Otherwise, we’d define it. ‘It’ might be what it seems, or ‘it’ might be what I want it to be, which is different from what you want.

One person breaking off a relationship with another and not motivated to give a reason will sigh and say, “It is what it is.” In that case, it has replaced the kinder, “It’s not you, it’s me.” The poor pronoun, no one will name it.

For all the different uses, the real meaning is one of laziness or confusion. We use “it is what it is,” when we don’t know what the exact situation is, when we don’t have an explanation and when we don’t want to put effort into thinking, explaining, reasoning or solving. It would be more honest to say, “I don’t know what it is,” but that invites a criticism.

So we stick with “it is what it is,” a safe, bland evasion of truth, caring, or logic. At its best, it’s sloppy. At its worst, it’s a lie. In either case, it’s time to move away from the saying. It is not flattering to our culture or to the language.

–Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach and a writer. See her work at