It Is What It Is: The True Meaning

It is what it is!  What it actually is, is one of those phrases that can send you round in circles trying to figure out what it means! The phrase seems to have crept into many people’s vocabularies over the past few decades. But, without much thought to the meaning or implications of actually saying it.

It is often a quick and easy statement given in response and as supposed advice to a tough situation. Or, it is said in answer to a question that may be hard to answer. The meaning and inferences behind it can differ according to the context. The saying, although sometimes said in jest or light-heartedly, is often not used in a healthy or constructive way.

Where does “It is what it is” come from?

Image Source:

The origins of the saying “it is what it is” are a little ambiguous in themselves. Translations of the 13th-century Persian philosopher and poet Rumi include the phrase. However, the phrase has mostly popped into every day English vernacular over the past few decades. A writer for the New York Times tried to get to the roots of it in 2006. They found it first used in a newspaper column in the late 1940s in the United States. It then increased in use in popular culture towards the end of the 1990s to the early 2000s. The usage had a millennial boom, so to speak. It is a cliché used in sports and by politicians – including an ex-president. In movies, music, and books “it is what it is” gets used in lyrics and dialogue. It also features as the main title across all genres and among many forms of media today. 

What is the definition of “It is what it is”?

 There is no formal definition of “it is what it is”. Look it up online, and you can read a lot around the linguistics of the phrase:

  • It is a tautology – the same phrase repeats twice. We tend to do it a lot. Shakespeare was a fan of tautologies. For example, the expression “what’s done is done” from Macbeth. The Hebrew Bible’s Book of Exodus uses a tautology with the quote “I am that I am”. The infamous lyrics “Whatever will be will be” from the translation of the Spanish “Que sera sera” are a tautology.
  • It is also an idiom, in a sense. It doesn’t have a literal other meaning such as the idiom “once in a blue moon”. That phrase makes reference to a physical object. It also suggests the temporal and/or unlikely nature of something. It is nonetheless an idiom in that it used as a response to something that may be hard to understand. It is an attempt to make sense something in the “hard basket”.

Think about the semantics and what the true meaning of the phrase is in context. It becomes obvious that people often say it without realizing what they are implying. This goes for internal dialogue to oneself, and in conversations with other people.

“It is what it is” in context 

Image Source:

There are so many different contexts people use this phrase. It is hard to put a definitive meaning on it. There may be times when the phrase is an appropriate response on its own, but often not. It tends to be more defeatist, avoidant, or defensive. Here are some examples of its use in various contexts:

  • As an acknowledgment: Saying, “It is what it is” to acknowledge something that is a fact. It is completely out of your own control.  This is probably one of the few times the usage of the phrase is actually okay. For example, you are due to take a flight or bus at a certain time. The transport operator advises you that bad weather has delayed your departure time. It is what it is. You can not control the weather that caused the delay. Nonetheless, there may be steps you can personally take to mitigate it. You can try to get onto another method of transport sooner than your delayed departure time.
  • As a deflection: Using “it is what it is” to turn or steer a conversation in a different direction. It may seem the equivalent of an acknowledgment. A step towards moving on to something else. But, it is avoiding the issue. It changes course without addressing the actual issue or situation. In effect, dismissing the original issue.  Unless, of course, you need to literally turn, or walk, away from what is being discussed.
  • To turn a situation around: Using “it is what it is” to acknowledge and change a situation. In this context, the statement will be immediately followed by a second statement of what can be done. For example, say you have been out of work for a while. You have received notification that a recent job interview was unsuccessful.  You may say, “It is what it is” with regard to that work. For whatever reason, that job is not coming your way. However, you follow up with saying or thinking “but I have another one pending”.
  • To avoid responsibility:  Using “it is what it is” to avoid taking responsibility and action. This may include responsibility for yourself or others and the worst-case scenarios.  Imagine being in a situation of abuse – whether verbal or physical or at home or at work. You confide in a colleague that you think you are being bullied in your workplace. They say, “Yep, it is what it is”. They have acknowledged it. However, they have also let you know you are on your own and not likely to receive any support.
  • As false empathy: Saying “it is what it is” as a pretense of empathy. It is a misconception that this phrase is empathetic. Especially when talking with another person about a tough situation. It is not. It is really saying that the person doesn’t know how to respond. They may not want to have to deal with it, dig deeper, or consider it valid. 
  • To end a conversation: Saying “it is what it is dismissively. Whether in a debate, an argument, or to end any kind of conversation “it is what it is” kills the dialogue in an instant. It is the equivalent of closing a door. It is saying you do not want to know. Or, you cannot be bothered. Or, you that you are willing to consider what the other person thinks or look for a resolution. No further conversation allowed.

It is what it is, or it was what it was … so what is next?

Image Source:

You may be shutting down your own, and others, ability to find positive solutions. The term tends to limit thinking and creativity. It also silences people’s opportunities to speak. It often renders someone powerless. It is also often spoken with regard to situations that do not have to be. 

Sure, some things are going to be outside of your control. That is acceptable, and an acknowledgment of that, as a matter of fact, is okay.

However, a healthier approach is to adopt a proactive stance. Be ready to find creative or practical ways to solve the issue or problem. If that is not possible, find ways to prevent it from happening again. Think about:

  • What happened and all the contributing factors that people that contributed to it
  • What is possible to either fix or improve the situation or event
  • If there is a way to solve the problem or improve the current situation. Can you do it on your own or do you need to enlist the support of others
  • Whether it would have been possible to avoid the situation or event
  • Whether the situation or event is likely to happen again
  • What you can change about circumstances within your control that contributed to the situation or event
  • Whether you can involve others to help or support you with making changes now, or in the future
  • How you could potentially create a different outcome in a similar situation in the future.
author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings
Scroll to Top