It Is What It Is — No, It’s Not

By Whitey Strunk

The noted animal linguist Ruth Spot-Popper has often commented on the intriguing variations in clichés used by people and animals. In a scholarly article published in the February/March issue of Dead Words, Spot-Popper analyzes an example of an American cliché —"It is what it is" — and compares it to similar phrases common in the animal kingdom.

As Spot-Popper writes: “The phrase du jour for Americans — “It is what it is” — with its inane and infantile pairing or ‘stuttering’ of the same present-tense verb, evinces a pathology of short-term thinking, indeed a kind of morbid micro-term non-thinking. That is to say, this particular cliché reveals an inability to look forward or backward in time in any meaningful sense. History for Americans is the study of what happened five minutes ago. Politics is the practice of governing and planning for the next five minutes.”
The professor cites a phrase common among Bornean orangutans — "It was what it will be" — as a cliché reflecting an attitude opposite that of Americans today. “Bornean orangutans fear the present so much that they refuse to acknowledge its existence,” writes Spot-Popper. “They divide time into the past and the future, with no concept of a now in between. Unlike Americans, these orangutans are adept at analyzing the past and planning for the future, but they are incapable of dumbly and drunkenly marooning themselves in the present, as Americans do.”

“It would be fascinating,” continued Spot-Popper, “if we could breed an orangutan with an American in order to study the resulting child’s sense of time and use of verb tense. I suppose we’d call the little boy or girl an Amerutan or an Orangican.”

In the article, Spot-Popper lists variations on  “It is what it is” used by a number of other animals, including the Yangtze finless porpoise ("It is what it was and wasn’t), the hawksbill turtle ("It was what it had been and would be again if not for what is"), the western lowland gorilla ("It will be what it should have been had it not been for you"), the Asian elephant ("It sure better not be what apparently it is and seemingly always will be"), the Ganges River dolphin ("It should be what it could have been but wasn’t for complex reasons and won’t be now for the same reasons”), the black-footed ferret ("It hasn’t ever been and never will be what it seems with a little effort and goodwill it could have been and still could be if only more of us, including me, would try harder and give more fully but alas it seems most of us....Oh nothing.")

Spot-Popper, herself an Amur Leopard, offered a final thought on the American version of the cliché: “People are so stupefied by the glare of the present that they cannot see how dull the future will be without animals such as those mentioned in this article, all of which are endangered species, some of them critically endangered. Some in fact may be extinct by the time you reach the end of this sentence.”