“It is what it is”

This phrase started becoming very popular a few years ago and I had a colleague who was particularly fond of using it.

(Pearls Before Swine)

I must admit that when I first heard people using it, I had the same reaction as Rat. It seemed like an irritating banal tautology. After all, if something is, how can it be anything else? But over time, I have come to terms with its use as a statement of resignation about a situation that cannot be changed. It can even be viewed positively as a call to accept the current situation and take action based on it, rather than simply whine about something that cannot be changed.

It is akin to “what will be will be”, though that carries a sense of fatalism, that we have no agency over the future.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    In the film The Deer Hunter, Robert De Niro’s character at one point holds up a rifle cartridge and says “this is this”. I like it. Apparent banality can sometimes have depths of meaning.

  2. Matt G says

    If you want to sound edjumacated you say que sera sera. Yeah, I hate it in the same way I hate “have a good one.”

  3. John Morales says

    It’s a tautology, but it’s not meaningless.

    (Any valid argument is also a tautology)

  4. brucegee1962 says

    I must prefer “It is what it is” — to me, it implies “We must focus on the problem as it currently exists, rather than as we wish it might be.” “Que sera sera” seems much more insidious, especially if you listen to the song — it implies that there isn’t any point in planning for the future because everything is preordained.

  5. John Morales says


    “Que sera sera” seems much more insidious, especially if you listen to the song — it implies that there isn’t any point in planning for the future because everything is preordained.

    Nah. It’s exactly the same thing: [What is, is; What will be, will be; What was, was]

    Also: What may be, may be
    Also: the converse.

    All equally relevant in relevant circumstances.

    Point being, they’re not necessarily phatic, as the comic’s conceit has it.

  6. says

    Pedantic logicians, mathematicians and philosophers would disagree.

    Under the law of identity (“a=a”), “It is what it is” makes perfect sense.

  7. Matt G says

    Intransitive@8- Yes, but that’s just because logicians will be logicians, mathematicians….

    Three logicians walk into a bar. The bartender asks “do all three of you want a beer”? The first logician says “I don’t know.” The second logician says “I don’t know.” The third logician says “yes.”

  8. robert79 says

    I’ve always interpreted it to mean “just accept the things you cannot change and get on with your life”.

    I’ve used the phrase (well, the Dutch variant “het zij zo”) occasionally while supervising students when their thesis research turns out to be inconclusive. There comes a point where it becomes clear there is no effect to be found, no correlation to be analyzed, and they have to stop what they’re doing (or risk p-hacking), write up what they’ve tried and why it failed, and graduate.

  9. mnb0 says

    @10: translations of expressions are fun. “Het zij zo” rather translates as “so be it”, while “it is what it is” translates as “het is wat het is”. Still your point stands.
    The fun part -- which is also the real point of the joke given by @9 Matt G -- of course is that in a sentence the meaning is not exactly the same as the sum of the words it is made of.

  10. garnetstar says

    For some reason, I’ve always preferred “Well, there you have it!” which also means nothing and is equally conclusory.

    My Italian grandmother used to say, more sensibly, “Well, whaddya gonna do?” while throwing up her hands (because she was Italian and could not speak without accompanying gestures.)

  11. antaresrichard says

    I still recall a variant I haven’t heard since the late sixties and seventies: “What it is!”


  12. steve oberski says

    I interpret it as tacit acknowledgement of the fact that we are but meat robots living in a deterministic universe (barring quantum indeterminacy, but so what) who contain no matter in a privileged state and are without free will, doomed to respond to identical inputs in exactly the same way each and every time.

    But perhaps I’ve over analyzed it.

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