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, 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….”


  1. There’s a Wikipedia page about all the amazing Darwins, Wedgwoods (non-conformist blue-china makers and left-Liberals) & Huxleys. They’re all intermarried.

  2. dearieme says

    Good ‘un by sobiest.
    What about the tenses?
    It will be what it will be.
    It was what it was.
    It had been what it had been.

  3. Google Ngram viewer shows that they have some entries in their corpus from the late 17th century. A couple of early instances:
    Richard Baxter’s Catholick Theologie (1675): “But if it [faith] be taken Metaphorically, … then no doubt it is what it is.”
    John Locke, An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding (1690): “Essence may be taken for the very being of anything, whereby it is what it is.”

  4. ladies of ambiguous character
    As in the curious expression, used around the same time by delicate ladies to impute indelicacy to other ladies: “She’s no better than she should be”. This, and “it is what it is” in the older sense, are examples of early modern bad-mouthing.
    What progress has been made since those evasive days ! Or perhaps not: I’m not sure whether modern ladies find it easier to fight back when the attack is frontal. Has anyone done a study of “Bitchiness Through the Ages” ?

  5. Presumably the 18th-C phrase is “She is what she is.” Not too many hits of promise from Google Books…

  6. Actually, I can antedate the expression to the beginning of the world:
    God: I am who I am
    Popeye took this up later, in a pre-post-modernist citation: “I yam what I yam”.

  7. OK, not to the beginning of the world, but pretty near the beginning of the bible: Exodus 3:14.

  8. Both those variants are mentioned in the Wordorigins thread; I myself adduced the divine one.
    Gareth: Amazing, and well done!

  9. Charles Perry says

    It would have, should have, could have been what it might have, ought to have, wasn’t.

  10. Both those variants are mentioned in the Wordorigins thread
    Sorry, I didn’t see that “posted” was a link in “posted about it at”.

  11. Sorry
    Oh, I wasn’t chastising you, just pointing out that two could play at that game.

  12. When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother, “What will I be? Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?” Here’s what she said to me [deep breath, and all together now!]:

  13. I read somewhere that “it is what it is” was one of the most hated phrases of the current time. However, I find it comforting. And since I write about a woman who fits the description, may I add that women of ambiguous character always, indeed, are what they are.

  14. mattitiahu says

    Aww, Stu already beat me to אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה.

  15. dearieme says

    Heh, heh, HP, that was what I had in mind. How hard it is to shake off the memory of the lousy pop music of the 50s, that trough between the Swing Bands and the Beatles.

  16. And then there’s the trough that has existed ever since about 1990 and gets deeper by the year.

  17. AJP, you’re a codger after my own heart. But let’s not slag the ’50s: Elvis (the early, great Elvis: “That’s All Right, Mama,” “Mystery Train,” etc.), Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Jackie Wilson, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, The Five Royales (“Think”), The Del-Vikings (“Come Go with Me” and “Whispering Bells”), The Elegants (“Little Star”), The Harptones (“A Sunday Kind of Love”), Roy Orbison, the Isley Brothers, Mickey & Sylvia (“Love Is Strange”), The Rays (“Silhouettes”), The Platters, Richie Valens… damn, what a great decade for rock and roll!

  18. The most egregious farmer filling that trough currently is Lady Gaga. I’ve haven’t heard one thing from her worth remarking on. What a waste of camp and trashy glamor.
    At my last Frankfurt project, there was a delicately-fashioned youngish colleague who went to Munich one weekend expressly to attend a Kylie Minogue concert. Even IT isn’t what it used to be.

  19. “damn, what a great decade for rock and roll!”
    It was pretty awful in Britain though. While you had Little Richard, we had Cliff Richard.

  20. You have a point there. Good thing the Beatles came along, eh?

  21. Yes, it was a miracle, really.
    I just read that all the Beatles are or were vegetarians. I’m not sure it’s true.

  22. Well, they didn’t eat beetles, that much is certain. There were always four of them – the same four.

  23. dearieme says

    Sorry, but Hat’s list is just the sort of tosh that I had in mind. Dreadful rubbish. Thank God for Jazz and Bach.

  24. Sorry, but Hat’s list is just the sort of tosh that I had in mind. Dreadful rubbish. Thank God for Jazz and Bach.
    You… don’t actually like rock and roll, do you?

  25. I find it hard to conceive of a musical sense that could describe this as “dreadful rubbish.” But I am a tolerant man and will not have you whipped and driven out of town.

  26. I love Language’s list. How can you not like that sort of thing, dearie? You like Django Reinhardt. Next you’ll be saying you don’t like Bob Dylan, or something.
    I haven’t heard any of her records, but from what I’ve seen Lady Gaga’s a fairly typical student art project, which is ironic because it’s all about money. I once met Barbra Streisand.

  27. dearieme says

    Aw naw, Dylan was always good for a laugh. Such a pretentious wee fella – though not as pretentious as some of the Strolling Bones.

  28. I saw Lady Gaga when she appeared on American Idol one week to advise and encourage the contestants. (No, no, of course I would never watch that show myself. I just watch it a little bit because some other members of my family are into it.) “Student art project” seems like the mot juste.
    But Bob Dylan: he was for real, the unwashed phenomenon, the original vagabond.
    I have never met Barbra Streisand, but one of my mentors once insulted Henry Kissinger.

  29. J.W. Brewer says

    Has anyone mentioned Ex. 3:14? Oh. Well, at least I can stick up for the Five Satins and Eddie Cochran. (The latter was very popular in the U.K. and I knew his work exclusively through covers by British bands long before I’d heard the originals.)

  30. Good lord!
    I had no idea that such anarchy as seen here was.
    None-the-less, Heigh-ho!

  31. such anarchy as seen here
    Anarchy is not the daughter but the mother of order.

  32. Anarchy is merely the dual concept of order. They are not related by blood or in time, but only as mechanically connected artefacts of logic. Very little is known about either, but a lot is known about the connection.

  33. While you had Little Richard, we had Cliff Richard.
    British rock’n’rollers were all banished to that Boat, in America they were too busy purging Hollywood, before realising that people on Hat’s list were communist subversives. When they did, they called up Elvis and sent Chuck to prison, it was what it was. In Russia they were, of course, American subversives.
    Neither Lucille, nor that gal called Sue, stopped me loving Bach or Hallelujah.

  34. I recently listened to a BBC Radio 2 documentary about Alan Freed in which one of the interviewees claimed that Freed’s conviction, Berry’s conviction, Jerry Lee Lewis’s cousin trouble, Elvis being drafted, and Little Richard being told to change professions or else certain photographs would be made public, were all part of a master plan organized by certain politicians, with the assistance of J. Edgar Hoover.

  35. Lady Gaga’s a fairly typical student art project, which is ironic because it’s all about money.
    The relationship between the avant-garde, PR and big money has always been there, back to the French avant-gardists of ~1830. Not only are the avant-garde and the bourgeoisie joined at the hip, but that perception has been standard ever since the beginning, with Theophile Gautier and Henri Murger.
    My son is a musician who lives in Portland, which is a hipster mecca, and he reports that the hipsters there take money for granted. They were born to money, they have money, and they expect money. Impoverished indigenous local hipsters are just bit players and local color.
    As for Dylan, he was real but he presented himself was carefully constructed. He went from HS to college to Greenwich Village with no intervening real-world phase. He was a genuine rustic of sorts, though, albeit Jewish. He grew up in a mining town populated by Serbs and Finns, and that area was one of the strongholds of the American Communist Party. Dylan mentioned in one of his autobiographies that his uncles and others in the area didn’t get on the anti-Communist bandwagon so much.

  36. You can see La Gaga playing piano back when she was a brunette named Stefani Germanotta here. Who’da thunkit?

  37. It says here that Germanotta’s stage name originated in a spellcheck error.

  38. Watchout Nora Jones. If you look at the other videos she’s not bad, but not especially original. It’s not avant garde is it, John? It looks to me like a performance borrowed from Madonna and music I’ve heard a million times over fifty years. She’s much better than I am at that sort of thing, but I probably know more about goats.

  39. Here’s an earlier 17th C use, from John Gaule‘s Practique Theories or Votiue Speculations, upon Christs Prediction, Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, 1629:

    If thou be the better by me, I am not the worse: If thou be the worse to me, I am not the better. Better or worse, it is what it is in itselfe; and to thee as thou wilt haue it.

    Since Lady Gaga is under discussion, can I raise an issue that has been disturbing me? Having heard that the name originated with the Queen song, I have always pronounced it in my head as /ˈleɪdi ˈgægæ/ but then had occasion a few weeks ago to say it out loud and sensed that I’d committed a solecism. So is it /ˈgægæ/ or /ˈgɑːgɑː/ or is either acceptable?

  40. I say Lady gehGA, like “cigar”, but only because it makes my daughter laugh.

  41. There is also the mathematical term GAGA.

  42. There is also the mathematical term GAGA.
    How appropriate, she has already inspired a Geometry Class style.

  43. I say, and I believe have always heard, /ˈgɑːgɑː/, but my opinions on the topic are completely worthless. AJP’s goats are probably better informed.

  44. Do your students come to seminars dressed like that ? How does anybody every learn anything ? Ah, verstehe …

  45. I say, and I believe have always heard, /ˈgɑːgɑː/
    Has anyone ever heard something other than /ˈgɑːgɑː/ in the sense “out of it” ? Someone reading “Lady Gaga”, never having heard the name before or the everyday expression, might come up with a different pronunciation for “gaga”.
    To a certain extent, written material has the potential to distort previous pronunciations as well as to discipline them. I read once that the reading materials that American pioneers took along with them – often just the bible and mail-order catalogs, I think – had a strong effect on the development of their speech patterns, in that they learned to use words they had never heard before by interpreting the orthography according to some fixed set of half-remembered rules.

  46. My goats are really out of it, so be careful with your comparisons.

  47. Older metrosexuals sneer at Gaga and compare her invidiously to Madonna.

  48. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    One early occurrence seems to trace the route from the biblical antecedent towards contemporary usage:

    When Moses was very inquisitive to know his name (and God can best tell his own name), let us see what answer was made him: “And they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them? and God said unto Moses, I Am that I Am” (Exod. iii. 13,14). God was sending Moses upon a strange message: he was giving him commission to go and speak to a king, to dismiss and let go six hundred thousand of his subjects, to lead them to a place which God should show. Now, Moses thought for such a message he had need have good authority; therefore desireth a significant name, “I Am that I Am.” The form of the word showeth it was a wonderful, incomprehensible name: “Why askest thou thus after my name, seeing it is secret?” (Judg. xiii. 18.) This is enough to satisfy sober inquiry, though not wanton curiosity, enough for faith to work upon: The great “I Am” hat sent me. It showeth his unsearchableness. It is our manner of speech, when we would cover anything and not answer distinctly, we say, It is what it is ; I have said what I have said.

    Thomas Manton, Sermons on Psalm 119: 61 (emphasis mine). I cannot date this sermon precisely, but Manton died in 1677 and did most of his preaching from 1645 to 1662.

  49. J. W. Brewer says

    Wait a minute. When I hear Queen singing “Radio Gaga,” I hear the PALM vowel, not the TRAP vowel. (I’m very close to having LOT-PALM merger if I don’t actually have it, but I’d put it on the PALM side of the line if there is one.) Is Ian Preston listening to the same recording as I am?

  50. This is enough to satisfy sober inquiry, though not wanton curiosity, enough for faith to work upon.
    I love a good sermon. The Old Ones did it best. I am gradually coming to understand why “curiosity” had a bad press for so long.
    It is our manner of speech, when we would cover anything and not answer distinctly, we say, It is what it is ; I have said what I have said.
    I originally understood Jesus’ answer to Pilate’s sarcastic question as being evasive, according to the KJV, Mark 15:2:

    And Pilate asked him, Art thou the King of the Jews? And he answering said unto him, Thou sayest [it].

    But newer translations (New International Version, 1984) give:

    “Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate. “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied.

    I suppose “Thou sayest” is all that Mr. King James could make, in his time, out of a colloquial expression that means “You bet”, or the formal equivalent “Yes, it is as you say”.
    There is always the possibility, though, of maintaining that there is no cover-up on the part of the speaker, but rather a failure to understand on the part of the hearer. To be fair, the whole business should be thrown into a gunnysack, tied up and labelled “communication issue”.

  51. Older metrosexuals sneer at Gaga and compare her invidiously to Madonna.
    Is that possible ? I thought the word metrosexual became current only within the past 10 years or so, often in order to characterize David Beckham’s PR image. So I wouldn’t have expected that there are any older metrosexuals out there yet.
    Of course you may have intended it as a backhanded compliment: “older” out-of-it and negative, “metrosexual” spiffy and positive. Unfortunately you can’t have meant me, because I have not a shred of spiffyness to call my own.

  52. Is Ian Preston listening to the same recording as I am?
    The original impression was based on memory but I’ve listened to this and this and both sound to me like the TRAP vowel. I have just tried this on my children – both of whom are probably better informed than AJP’s goats and agree that the singer is pronounced /ˈgɑːgɑː/ – and they agree with me that Freddie Mercury sings /ˈgægæ/. I notice that the one UK sample here also sounds like /ˈgægæ/ to my ear. I may just be exposing my phonetic ignorance though. The OED gives /ˈgɑːgɑː/ and /ˈgægə/ as alternative pronunciations.

  53. Has anyone ever heard something other than /ˈgɑːgɑː/ in the sense “out of it”
    I have often heard /gɑː’gɑː/ (stress on second syllable). Much like what Crown says he says, I think. Of course, the word is of French origin and in the US we tend to hear and speak French words as having stressed final syllable.

  54. In case it advances discussion, I note that Wikipedia and other sources suggest that the song title originated as a bowdlerisation of Radio Caca, so the theme is actually crappy radio rather than crazy radio. I guess the pronunciation of caca is as contested as gaga though.

  55. Of course, the word is of French origin
    Huh, I hadn’t even thought about that. It is essentially a typographically challenged cake, sez Little Robert:

    gâteux, euse adj. et n.
    • 1835; arg. des hôpitaux, var. péj. de gâteur « qui gâte ses draps, ses vêtements »; de gâter
    1¨ Dont les fonctions physiologiques et les facultés intellectuelles sont amoindries par l’effet de l’âge ou plus rarement de la maladie. Être complètement gâteux (cf. Retomber en enfance*, fam. sucrer les fraises*). Un vieillard gâteux. Subst. « C’est un pauvre gâteux. Il fait plutôt pitié » (Sarraute).
    2¨ Par exagér. (1872) Dénué d’intelligence (comme un gâteux). idiot. — Spécialt Qui devient stupide sous l’empire d’un sentiment violent auquel l’intelligence critique ne s’oppose plus. Il adore cette petite, il en est gâteux ! fam. gaga.

  56. Wow, that’s interesting.
    There’s an additional pronunciation, I’d say it’s upper-class older persons’ speech, which is “gugga” (“he’s completely gugga”).

  57. they agree with me that Freddie Mercury sings /ˈgægæ/.
    Huh. I don’t hear it that way.

  58. Huh. I don’t hear it that way.
    Heh. Is there no agreement even in this simple case ? More evidence in support of my feeling that phonetic transcription efforts, such as /t͡ʃɝːt͡ʃ/ for “church”, are sometimes an elaborate put-on: more visual expressionism than scientific representation. They remind me of a score by Ferneyhough (“FUR-nih-ho”).
    I don’t have it in for phonetics in particular. Put-ontology is everywhere. Even debunkings of debunkings can be couched in unnecessarily difficult language, so more debunking is needed. I’m a steak-and-potatoes man, myself. Unfortunately, I also know that this is just the complementary position. Phonetics can be overdone, steak can be underdone.

  59. Sigh. After looking more closely at /t͡ʃɝːt͡ʃ/, I see the point. But such discrepancies, as here between the (subjective) perceptions of what Freddy sings, must have implications for the way transcriptions are treated. At the very least, one would have to concede that transcriptions show what the transcriber heard, or thinks he heard – not “what was said”.
    Is that obvious ? Have I been misunderstanding the controversies that take place here occasionally about whether a certain dialect of whatever has devoiced velar fricatives in final position ? If each of the participants knew that only his own perceptions were at issue, what could the controversy have been about ?

  60. Huh. I don’t hear it that way.
    Now you have me thinking I’m going gaga. I have listened again to this version and I can’t hear anything but the TRAP vowel at 1.59 and 2.04, the vowel sounds ambiguous at 2.08 and then it is the PALM vowel at 2.10. It is undeniably the PALM vowel at 3.47 too.
    Here’s the proof that I’m wrong though – the story of the song is told here from 18.00 to 20.40 and there is no doubt that everyone refers to it as /ˈgɑːgɑː/. Are the bits that I’m hearing as /ˈgægæ/ the bits that are supposed to be /ˈkaka/ (see at 18.55)?

  61. The Queen song is “Radio Ga Ga” (not “Gaga”).
    Like Ian, I hear both [æ] and [ɑː] at different points in the song.
    But one of the complications of transcribing vowels from songs is that singers often adjust vowels in order to improve the timbre, or to make it easier to reach the note without straining. Singing [æ] on short notes, but adjusting to the nearby [ɑː] on long notes to improve their quality, would be perfectly normal singing technique.

  62. Lars Mathiesen says

    Or as Eccles had it: The thing that hath beene, it is that which shall be: and that which is done, is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing vnder the sunne.

  63. There’s a tendency in a particular genre(s) of Bulgarian pop music to pronounce a final stressed central back vowel as an open one that I find annoying.

    EDIT: Freddie sings [gɑːgɑː]

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