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It is what it is
Beijing tops ObamaSpeak as the Top Teleword of the Year followed by 'facts are stubborn...
[ 2008-09-26 10:43 ]

It is what it is

Beijing tops ObamaSpeak as the Top Teleword of the Year followed by 'facts are stubborn things', 'it is what it is,' and Phelpsian.

That is the headline of a story released by the Global Language Monitor in its fifth annual analysis of the most cited, or sighted, words on the web.

Beijing tops the list thanks, obviously to the Olympics which drew some 4.7 viewers from around the world. ObamaSpeak refers to newly coined words in relation, or allusion, to Barack Obama the American Democratic presidential candidate, such as Obamamentum (momentum), Obamacize (criticize), Obamarama (panorama). Phelpsian? Michael Phelps, of course, the American swimmer who bagged 8 gold medals in Beijing. But my question to you is: what does "it is what it is" mean?

Well, "Facts are stubborn things" is one explanation, given by John Adams. This quaint turn of phrase shot to No. 4 on the list (right behind "it is what it is" itself in third place) thanks to the fact that the HBO's miniseries about the life of the second US President won 13 Emmys, the most in the history of US television's version of the Oscars (which are for Hollywood). But my question remains, do you get the message? What does "it is what it is" mean?

Frankly speaking, this phrase reminds me most of Jeff Van Gundy, former coach of Yao Ming with the Rockets. Van Gundy wears "it is what it is" on his lips as often as Sarah Palin applies a lipstick. That's an exaggeration, but you get the idea. "It is what it is" epitomizes Van Gundy's no-excuse, no-complaint approach to life. And work, of course, at which he's been known as a no-nonsense coach who demands dedication and perfection from his players, which is one reason why he was so fond of Yao.

It is around Yao, of course, that Jeff uttered the phrase in question a lot. Yao would get injured, leaving the Rockets empty in the middle, and Jeff would say "it is what it is" and ask other players to give more. Yao would be playing for the national team during the NBA offseason, risking a burnout and Jeff would say "it is what it is" and leave the topic at that. Yao would be called for phantom fouls and Jeff would defend Yao calling NBA refs biased against his Chinese star. One time, during the 2005 playoffs, one such claim drew the ire of the NBA top brass and they fined him $100,000 for it. And Jeff would say, of course: "It is what it is."

As you can see, "it is what it is" implies the following messages: it happens (injuries are part of a professional player's life); it happens and there's nothing I can do (I cannot force Yao to quit playing for his country); it happens (I've said what I said and I'll take the consequence).

Incidentally, I think the Chinese Taoism and the Western existentialism are best summed up by the saying "What is, is". That is to say, what happens does for a reason. Instead of fighting against it you'd better accept it and (re)start from there. Reality is. Trying to deny or change reality is in vain. It's wasted energy – you'd do better spending the energy on something you have control over. That is, of course, if you're a positive person. If you're negative-minded, I am sure the same "what is, is" gives you a profound sense of resignation and despair.

Now, that's a terrible explanation, I know – It gives the whole thing away.

Ah well, it's too late to adopt the Adams doctrine, say "facts are stubborn things" and bid everyone adieu.

So, let's move on to examples from the media.

1. If China pushes Yao to play, he will play. Before China allowed him to come to the NBA nearly six years ago, expectations were established for his continued participation with the Chinese national team. As a result, Yao has not missed a major competition in his five offseasons with the Rockets. "It is what it is," Van Gundy says. "We knew that, and we accepted that." Echoes Rockets G.M. Daryl Morey: "It's who he is."

- For the sake of his career, Yao must learn to say 'no', SportingNews.com, March 6, 2008.

2. The way to determine whether an adage is past its prime is to look at who is still saying it.

If Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and pop star Britney Spears and wanna-be Donald Trump apprentice Lee Bienstock are all using the expression, then it is time for the expression to go.

"It is what it is" just isn't anymore.

Rumsfeld, pressed by a reporter about invading another country, said: "You can call that defense, as I do, or you can call it pre-emptive, but it is what it is."

- The death knell of a catch phrase? It is what it is, St. Petersburg Times, July 11, 2006.

3. For additional nuance, I turn to Joe Pickett, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary. "It is what it is is also a way of expressing philosophical resignation over a disappointment, of saying that the situation just has to be put up with. Athletes will say it about a missed catch or a bad call by the referee; it means that they don't want to dwell on the situation. A variation of It is what it is is What's done is done; you'd never say that about a person, but you can say She is what she is. It reminds me of a phrase rampant here in Boston: 'That's just Manny being Manny,' to refer to the weird behavior of the Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez. It must be a variation on 'Let Reagan be Reagan.'" (That tautophrasal political slogan was based on the 1981 Let Poland be Poland.)

- It Is What It Is, by William Safire, New York Times, March 5, 2006.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

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