The other day my wife asked me how far back the expression “It is what it is” went. I dug around a little and found a William Safire column in which he investigates the phrase and turns up a 1949 use in a column by J.E. Lawrence in the Nebraska State Journal: “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.” I thought that was pretty impressive, and I posted about it at Wordorigins.org, whereupon sobiest, after mentioning its popularity in the musical circles he was part of in the ’70s, revealed that he had found it in an 1805 review of Southey’s Madoc:
As sobiest says, apparently the phrase was applied to “ladies of ambiguous character” in the 1700s. Now, that’s what I call an antedate!
In case anyone’s wondering about the use of “Darwinian,” sobiest explains:
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….”