It is what it is. 
Posted: 25 June 2011 03:52 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Don’t know if we’ve done this one before, but my wife asked me how far back it went and I guessed the ‘80s; a little Google Books searching convinced me it was older than that, but not much older.  There are uses in the ‘70s, but when I put the cutoff date at 1970 it’s mostly non-catchphrase uses like “No foreground exists in isolation — it is what it is by reason of the total landscape that helps to form it.” I’ve found a couple of borderline cases from 1970:

“It is what it is.”
“I know it is what it is. But folks ought not to give up. They ought to fight to get the things they want. Not many folks are inclined to give. Sometimes you have to take by force.”
—Erico Veríssimo, Time and the Wind, 1970 (tr. of O Continente, 1949)

It is what it is, a remarkably workable script mounted well and cast with several strokes of genius (Fargas as Scipio, for example), written by someone with a good ear for idiom and a rare sensitivity for the subject.
—Toni Cade Bambara, “Thinking About the Play The Great White Hope,” in The Black Woman, ed. Toni Cade Bambara (New York: Penguin Books, 1970)

...And I just turned up a William Safire column where he investigates the phrase, and turns up a use in a column by J.E. Lawrence 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 apology.”

*doffs hat to the late Bill Safire*

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Posted: 26 June 2011 12:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Calls to mind Popeye’s “I yam what I yam”, which goes back (I think) to the 1930’s

;-)

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Posted: 26 June 2011 01:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Not to mention ”I Am that I Am,” which goes back even farther!

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Posted: 26 June 2011 06:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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For what it’s worth, in the 1970’s, “what it is” was used as a ‘hip’ greeting, often with the response, “it is what it is.”

“What it is” was also used as a stand-alone saying and as a possible ‘hip’ response to “what’s happening?” It was popular with the college crowd and on the street up and down the east coast (including parts of Ohio) from New York to northern Florida, 1972 - 1980.  This is from personal experience--musical entities I performed with toured the east-coast ‘college circuit’ during that period. 

The phrase, “what it is” served as a shibboleth for a particular variety of ‘hipness’ which included, among other things, an interest in Jazz.  The phrase may have continued in that use beyond 1980, which was when I moved on to other musical projects. 

Looking on the internets, a comment on painintheenglish

“The first reference to the phrase, ‘...it is what it is,’ that I’ve come across is from 1943, in a New York State hermit’s letter to the editor of an Adirondack Mountain newspaper. The hermit was named Noah John Rondeau, and he concluded his letter with this particular phrase.”

I haven’t managed to find the referenced letter. 

I did find this little gem of literary criticism from 1805 (the italics are in the original): 

“...He has now contrived to manufacture a large quarto, which he has styled a poem, but of what description it is no easy matter to decide. The title of epic, which he indignantly disclaims, we might have been inclined to refuse his production, had it been claimed ; and we suppose that Mr. Southey would not suffer it to be classed under the mock-heroic. The poem of Madoc is not didactic, nor elegiac, nor classical, in any respect. Neither is it Macpher sonic,nor Klopstockian, nor Darwinian,—we beg pardon, we mean Brookian. To conclude, according to a phrase of the last century, which was applied to ladies of ambiguous character, it is what it is.— As Mr. Southey has set the rules of Aristotle at defiance in his preface, we hope that he will feel a due degree of gratitude for this appropriate definition of his work....”

--The Monthly review, Volume 48; author, Ralph Griffiths; editor, George Edward Griffiths, Printed for R. Griffiths, 1805. 

I take it that the phrase “it is what it is” was applied to “ladies of ambiguous character” in the 1700’s. 

But does this establish the phrase in the same sense as the William Safire article does?

[ Edited: 27 June 2011 05:25 AM by sobiest ]
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Posted: 26 June 2011 07:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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At the very least you’ve found a citation for Darwinian that pre-dates the birth of Charles Darwin himself. Pretty fascinating stuff, all in all.

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Posted: 26 June 2011 09:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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It predates Charles, but not his grandpa Erasmus (1731-1802), an eminent natural philosopher in his own right, who is, of course, the individual referred to.

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Posted: 26 June 2011 11:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I should have separated the second statement from the first. It wasn’t meant to be facetious but instead to include the whole thread.

However, I had not heard of the grandfather before.

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Posted: 27 June 2011 12:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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“ladies of ambiguous character”

A propos gentlemanly phrases like the above, and the attitudes underlying them, the protagonist in Isabel Allende’s Inés del alma mía says: ...a nosotras se nos culpa de los vicios y los pecados de los hombres ("we women are blamed for the vices and the sins of men")

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Posted: 27 June 2011 01:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Iron Pyrite - 26 June 2011 11:23 PM


...However, I had not heard of the grandfather before.

The “Darwinian” reference was indeed to the physician, natural philosopher, physiologist, abolitionist, inventor, and poet, Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of the naturalist Charles Robert Darwin.  He greatly influenced the young Darwin.  Interestingly, Erasmas Darwin wrote at least one poem on evolution before the famous naturalist Charles Robert Darwin was born. 

There was also controversy:  “...Various critics have expressed the opinion that Dr. Darwin’s didactic poem [The Botanic Garden] was an imitation of one which appeared anonymously in London in 1735 under the title of’ Universal Beauty,’ the author of which afterwards turned out to be the poet Henry Brooke....”

Hence, “...nor Darwinian,—we beg pardon, we mean Brookian....

[ Edited: 27 June 2011 02:48 AM by sobiest ]
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Posted: 27 June 2011 03:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I take it that the phrase “it is what it is” was applied to “ladies of ambiguous character” in the 1700’s.

But does this establish the phrase in the same sense as the William Safire article does?

I would say so, and that’s a most impressive antedate.  Well done!

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Posted: 27 June 2011 05:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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It is such a natural thing to say that it would be hard to separate casual instances from (what would you call it) its use as an aphorism.

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Posted: 27 June 2011 05:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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I don’t think this is a phrase that can be used “casually.” Because it seems like an obvious tautology, it’s almost always quite deliberate, like the Yogi Berraism it ain’t over until it’s over. While it is structured as a tautology, it really isn’t one, as it carries a meaning that is distinct from the single it is.

Now if you mean that it is an aphorism whose precise origin will never be nailed down because it was probably invented multiple times, I’m with you.

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Posted: 27 June 2011 06:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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I posted about this at LH, and Gareth Rees used his superior Google-fu to come up with antedates from the seventeenth century!  From Richard Baxter’s Catholick Theologie (1675):

books?id=dbnmAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA251&img=1&zoom=3&hl=en&sig=ACfU3U2cT8eefhs3D5Sv3Sj7kzkBLvlqFw&ci=58,808,699,98&edge=0

And from John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding (1690):

books?id=3n8PAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA232&img=1&zoom=3&hl=en&sig=ACfU3U3McuHpyJJd8BqTj-aixjTB8-21xw&ci=210,440,705,130&edge=0

(The second one doesn’t really fit the template, but it’s still interesting.)

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Posted: 27 June 2011 06:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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I also saw this:

“...If thou be the worse to me, I am not the better.  Better or Worse, it is what it is in itself; and to thee, as thou wilt have it. ...”

--Practic Theories By John Gaule, 1629

books?id=Lrs8AAAAcAAJ&pg=PP19&img=1&zoom=3&hl=en&sig=ACfU3U3q_xUphgH0PCyVZE9x5N74PebC0Q&ci=110,1513,746,313&edge=0

books?id=Lrs8AAAAcAAJ&pg=PP20&img=1&zoom=3&hl=en&sig=ACfU3U1-qbaseoxdH_IJI6yti33HOamx3A&ci=136,50,757,266&edge=0

But it may not be exactly…

[ Edited: 27 June 2011 08:41 AM by sobiest ]
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Posted: 27 June 2011 09:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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I’m tempted to think that it “it is what it is” is from a Latin or Greek philosopher, though I can’t provide a source.  Someone more learned than I am might be able to prove or disprove my theory.

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Posted: 27 June 2011 11:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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languagehat - 27 June 2011 03:48 AM

… that’s a most impressive antedate.  Well done!

I am flattered at the attribution carried over to LH and sincerely hope that others enjoy the fruit as much as I have enjoyed the picking.

ElizaD - 27 June 2011 09:24 AM

I’m tempted to think that it “it is what it is” is from a Latin or Greek philosopher, though I can’t provide a source…

PARMENIDES of Elæa [fl. in the 86th Olympiad, ~ 436 B.C.] comes perilously close, ideologically

“...Mourelatos saw Parmenides as utilizing a specialized, predicative sense of the verb “to be” in speaking of “what is”: this is used to reveal a thing’s nature or essence. This sense of the verb, dubbed by Mourelatos “the ‘is’ of speculative predication,” is supposed to feature in statements of the form, “X is Y,” where the predicate “belongs essentially to, or is a necessary condition for, the subject” and thus gives X’s reality, essence, nature, or true constitution (Mourelatos 1970, 56-60). Alexander Nehamas would likewise propose that Parmenides employs “is” in the very strong sense of “is what it is to be,” so that his concern is with...”

A case might be made in translation, I suppose, but then that would be the ‘idea’ of “it is what it is” in Greek, rather than as an English phrase unless the translation itself was prior to the earliest source found so far.

[ Edited: 27 June 2011 11:29 AM by sobiest ]
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