Steroids Hearing Turns to Discussion of Linguistics
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The Congressional hearing into baseball and steroids yesterday touched on aspects of sports, culture, public health and linguistics. A certain phrase both confused and amused members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. It is what it is - that's the phrase.
NPR's Mike Pesca has this report.
MIKE PESCA: Among the many points of disagreement between Roger Clemens and his accuser, Brian McNamee, yesterday was how to interrupt McNamee's end of a secretly recorded conversation.
If Clemens really took steroids, as McNamee alleged, why didn't the former trainer say something like, But Roger, we both know you took steroids. Clemens says the lack of that sort of statement was exonerating evidence, but McNamee had an explanation.
Mr. BRIAN MCNAMEE (Trainer): I did in my own way, as I speak. And if you had known me you would have known what I meant to the answer of that question - it is what it is.
PESCA: It is what it is. What is that? In McNamee's case he says it was standing for...
Mr. MCNAMEE: The truth is the truth.
PESCA: It is what it is seemed to confuse many of the Congressmen, but Republican Mark Souder of Indiana had a lead. Though the phrase was foreign to his Hoosier ears, he had it on good authority that this was the sort of thing someone from New York might say.
Representative MARK SOUDER (Republican, Indiana): I actually asked a New York on the floor and he said that is a - not only a Mr. McNamee expression - a New York expression for I told the truth. Would it be appropriate in the record to have some discussion of that phrase?
PESCA: It seems that whatever it is what it is is, it isn't a regional-ism. The phrase is used by all manner of athlete and public figure.
Here's the United States former Representative to the U.N. John Bolton - originally from Maryland - on the selection of the Secretary General.
Mr. JOHN BOLTON (Former U.S. Representative to the U.N.): I wish there had been more candidates, but it is what it is.
PESCA: Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Mr. DONALD RUMSFELD (Former Secretary of Defense): It is what it is. Take it for what you wish to.
PESCA: Racecar driver Danica Patrick.
Ms. DANICA PATRICK (Racecar Driver): Yeah, I'm smaller, but it is what it is. Racecar drivers are small in general.
PESCA: Athletes love it is what it is. There Patrick was using it to mean what are you going to do. According to Barbara Wallraff, who writes the syndicated column Word Court, it is what it is is something like the tofu of phrases. It takes on the flavor of what's around it.
Ms. BARBARA WALLRAFF (Writer): It's usually used to mean leave me alone, don't remind me, just forget about it.
PESCA: Also like tofu, it is what it is is a little mushy. Wallraff points out that other attempted conversation stoppers like just forget about it inevitably prompt a response. I don't want to forget about it. But it is what it is is disarming. If you shoot back - no, it's not what it isn't - you sound a little crazy, which may very well be why the phrase is a favorite of White House press secretaries.
Mr. TONY SNOW (Former White House Press Secretary): And it's, you know, it is what it is. It's a case involved Scooter Libby and his recollections.
PESCA: That was Tony Snow in 2007. Here's Scott McClellan a year earlier when questioned about Dick Cheney's hunting incident.
Mr. SCOTT MCCLELLAN (Former White House Press Secretary): Anything other than what it is - it is what it is, David.
PESCA: In the Bible, Moses asks God his name and God replies, Ehyeh asher ehyeh, I am that I am.
But if that was the earliest version of it is what it is, NYU linguistics Professor Greg Guy points to what he believes to be the next generation. An equivalent phrase has gained some currency in recent years. It's just as cryptic and tautological, but a little more dismissive. Can't figure the word out? Not buying the whole premise? In that case, whatever.
Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.