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When ‘it is what it is,’ in truth nothing is there

Have you ever been involved with people who consistently talk without saying anything? Sure you have. We all have. In fact, I suppose there have been times when even I could have been accused of adopting that approach. But they have been rare, I assure you, and I make that admission only because it helps to qualify me as an expert in the field of rhetorical nothingness.
This is what I am talking about:
"It is what it is."
That is the current cliche of choice among people who either cannot think of a relevant comment or, for whatever reason, have decided to rely on the use of that phrase. It has soared to the top of the hit parade among speakers whose opinion has been solicited on some topic.
"It is what it is," they observe, believing that statement qualifies as an astute comment. It enables them to avoid speaking directly about the essential issue being discussed; they can refrain from expressing an opinion or attempting to contribute any information that might have some bearing on the subject.
One thing you might not have realized is this: You will rarely, if ever, see "It is what it is" in print. Why is that? Simple. Those who employ the spoken phrase believe it enables them to pose as informed commentators because it actually doesn’t sound bad when uttered. Some might claim that it actually has a compelling mystique. But written down? It doesn’t work; it comes across as nonsensical and absolutely devoid of real meaning.
Should we devote a little time to an attempt to define it? That would be a noble effort, but the only conclusion we could reach is that it is a bloated vocalized pause. The vocalized pause, also never seen in print, usually presents itself in conversation with one of these three sounds: um, er or ah. The insertion of a vocalized pause provides the speaker with some time to consider another thought and construct the next sentence. While "It is what it is" has some of the same appeal as a vocalized pause, it is really a cliche, and I continue to marvel at the speed with which it entered the vocabulary of so many people.
It first came to prominence during sports interviews, in which owners, coaches, managers and players found it useful in good times or bad, after wins or losses. Then it migrated to the general population. In the sporting world it still outdistances such shopworn comments as "He always gives 110 percent," or "We’re taking it one game at a time," or even that hoary but still reliable "We won’t know until we review the film."
Despite my own negative view, "It is what it is," when compared to comparable cliches, has proved to be a potent contender. Probably the best testimonial to its acceptance and power is this: It completely obliterated "whatever," which, for a prolonged period had established itself as a conclusion that seemed appropriate for use in an infinite variety of circumstances.
Depending on the manner in which the speaker pronounced the word, "whatever" resulted in different reactions. A bland "Whatever," spoken softly in a resigned fashion, as if followed by a mere period, seemed to indicate willing acceptance of the pertinent situation. However, with the use of a more assertive tone, "Whatever" could be interpreted as being either inquisitive or exclamatory. Cliche users became infatuated with its brevity and its zero meaning, and it soon became recognized as a versatile conversational dingbat.
However, as so often happens, "whatever" became a victim of overuse. It meant absolutely nothing to anybody when it first became a popular comment. As time went on, the reason for saying "whatever" became more and more elusive and the usage of the word declined.
What is the current status of "whatever"? Hmm. That is difficult to evaluate. Moribund? Maybe, but perhaps it could make a comeback. The best assessment of the status of "whatever" could be: It isn’t what it was.
Many people were troubled by the passing of "whatever," people who found that their conversational style was severely cramped by the loss. That same fate awaits those who have embraced "It is what it is." Are there possible substitutes? Oh, yes, there are many, but I refuse to recommend any of them. My advice: When struggling to contribute something meaningful to a conversation, consider nodding in an understanding manner while maintaining silence.

Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.

7/15/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.


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