You're not alone if you wonder who should be attributed as the author of the famous quotation "It is what it is." This is a commonly used phrase and it's applicable in a wide range of circumstances. Like the best idioms, it contains a kernel of truth that can't be argued with, and it manages to get across a whole range of emotions in just a few simple words.
Strangely, the exact origin, or the moment when the phrase “It is what it is” was first coined, cannot be pinpointed. You may expect it to originate from a work of literature or poem like many common phrases that are actually famous quotes from Shakespeare or other renowned authors.
However, the earliest known written reference dates back to just 1949, according to the New York Times. The phrase appeared in a column written 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 an apology."
It’s unknown if Lawrence created the phrase but since that date midway through the twentieth century, it steadily rose in popularity. It really took off in the 1990s and through the 2000s, and today you hear it frequently in areas as diverse as sports, business and politics.
Though there's no official dictionary definition of the phrase, you can figure out the meaning of "It is what it is" based on how it is used. When someone says this, it's often an expression of frustration or resigned acceptance of a situation. It's usually used to answer a question that cannot be adequately answered.
For example, when someone asks why something bad happened, the person to blame may have already apologized. When there's nothing left to say or no way to answer questions about what happened, "It is what it is" puts an end to the conversation, usually with a shrug. It's another way of saying, "I don't like it either, but there's nothing we can do about it."
Seeing this phrase used in context will help clarify its meaning and illuminate the many different uses this phrase has.
In sports, athletes might use it in order to dodge difficult questions about the performance of a troublesome teammate on the field or an incident that occurred outside of the game.
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick uses the phrase often during post-game press conferences. He is famously tight-lipped about what goes on in the locker room, and prefers to deflect reporters with this phrase and get out interviews as quickly as possible. The coach of the U.S.A hockey team at the 2006 Winter Olympics commented on his team's lack of rest by saying, "We're going to do the best that we can. It is what it is."
Politicians have also used the phrase to end discussion about uncomfortable subjects, including election losses. Press Secretary Scott McClellan said it when he was tired of answering questions about Vice President Dick Cheney's hunting accident. George W. Bush reportedly said it when he thought he might lose to John Kerry in the 2004 election.
Likewise, Al Gore had this to say about his loss in 2000: "I strongly disagreed with the Supreme Court decision and the way in which they interpreted and applied the law. But I respect the rule of the law, so it is what it is."
This popular phrase has also been used in books, movies and music — and not just in conversation or dialogue. It's also the title of the following:
Similarities to the idea expressed in "It is what it is" can be found in other languages. In Persian, "Fihi Ma Fihi" means the same thing and was the title of a famous work by Rumi, a 13th century writer. In Spanish, the phrase "Que será, será" means "what will be, will be." This is a somewhat more optimistic twist on the idea (and popularized in English by a Doris Day song in 1956), as it is in future tense and suggests hoping for the best rather than accepting an action that cannot be changed.
Though we may never know who first coined the phrases "It is what it is" in English, it's a very useful saying that can help you move on from a topic of conversation that is going nowhere. It's also a great way to show acceptance of what has happened and a readiness to forge ahead without dwelling on a past that cannot be changed.