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Opinion | What Is ‘It Is What It Is’?

The issue here is language change. The expression “it is what it is” began as counsel about coping. However, an implication floats over the proactive, constructive intent of the phrase: its element of distance, coolness, indifference. Implications like this can take over the word or expression’s meaning and create either a new meaning or at least an alternative, 2.0 version.

To someone in the 19th century, “wonderful” meant “evincing wonder.” But the wonder in question is usually a kind of admiration rather than contempt, and that hanging implication moved “wonderful” into its contemporary meaning of “marvelous.” The same kind of drift led the mild, distancing connotation of “it is what it is” to, in some cases, take over its earlier meaning and instead express, “I don’t wish to engage that, and we shall move away from the subject.”

Crucially, the 1.0 and 2.0 versions of a word or expression often have a way of coexisting, at least for a while. Context determines which meaning is intended. But if we have occasion to think of the word or expression in isolation — for example, when someone like me mentions it on a podcast — we may be tempted to think of it as having only one meaning.

Questions about the meaning of “woke” are an example. It began as a positive term referring to an awareness of abstract but powerful sociopolitical arrangements that disempower too many people. However, over the past several years, it has taken on a pejorative tone. Some point to conservatives having subjected wokeness to ridicule; others trace the sea change to impatience with the subset of woke people given to shunning, pillorying or dismissing from employment those of differing politics. However, “woke” as a neutral or positive term has hardly vanished — “stay woke” T-shirts, using the original meaning of the term, still thrive. The word now means, in essence, two things.

Sometimes it happens more quietly. For instance, someone wrote me recently wondering why we now use “reach out” to simply mean “contact” — e.g., “for advertising requests or just to reach out” — when in the past it typically referred to making a special effort to communicate with someone in pain or with whom one had quarreled. Although both meanings still exist, the original one has become diluted into the newer, more general one. It’s a common process: The word “bird” used to refer only to baby birds but now describes all of them.

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