What it is: being mugged off by a girl you like. Being mugged off by a boy you like. Getting picked last on Love Island. Louis Tomlinson’s tattoo, a curling cursive font across the 28-year-old multi-millionaire’s chest, proudly announcing itself for what it is, which is to say, it is.
No-one knows exactly when “it is what it is” became the enduring motto of British life. It percolated into our cultural lexicon in the 2010s imperceptibly, like agricultural run-off into a stream. Tomlinson had the phrase tattooed on his chest in March 2013. By the late-2010s it is everywhere: Harry Kane mumbled it in Volgograd ahead of England’s opening World Cup game in June 2018. 2019 brought season five of Love Island. None of the girls pick Sherif Lanre during the initial coupling up. “It is what it is,” the semi-professional rugby player shrugs.
By 2020 Jerry Seinfeld is using the phrase in his standup set, whilst Gen Z users of TikTok had turned “it is what it is” into a meme using the ripped You Tube audio of a group of wisecracking young men. "It is what it is" ripped through Twitter in June after people began changing their user names to include the 👁👄👁 emoji and the phrase. After breathless coverage in the Independent and Forbes, the group clarified that it started out as an in-joke that got out of control and calling on followers to donate to anti-racism charities.
When the father of modern situational comedy and Gen Z TikTok users are saying the same thing concurrently, you know you’ve tapped into the motherlode of the cultural zeitgeist. But where did the phrase come from, and what does it mean? And more importantly: will “it is what it is” ever die?
The first thing to note: although “it is what it is” feels as British as beer bellies, sunburn and fading St George’s flag tattoos, the phrase is arguably as American as it is British. A New York Times article from 2006 was amongst the first to glom onto the phrase’s increasing popularity. Author William Safire used the example of George Bush Jr’s press secretary fielding media inquiries about Dick Cheney’s hunting accident (“it is what it is, and it’s time to move on”), and Britney Spears being photographed driving with her infant son on her lap (“I made a mistake, and so it is what it is”) to show how the phrase could be used to draw a line under behaviour of questionable legality. “Often accompanied by a shrug, it is used to deflect inquiry with panache,” Safire concludes.
In all likelihood, “it is what it is” was probably circulating long before Spears went for that drive: linguistic expert Dave Wilton, editor of Word Origins.org, has found an early reference to the phrase in a Jet magazine profile of LL Cool J from October 2000. “This is a real record, it is real from the heart,” says the rapper. “It is what it is.”
Wilton explains that it takes a while for new slang to form part of the written record, meaning that we cannot know for sure who first coined the now-deathless phrase. “No one knows why a word or phrases catch on,” he says. “It just kind of happens… whilst we can track its published uses, you can’t track the oral sources.”
“It is what it is” seemed to accrue momentum around 2005, finding its way into newspaper articles and magazine interviews. For the next 15 years, “it is what it is” multiplies exponentially in use. “It’s lasted longer than you’d expect,” muses Wilton. “It’s been steadily increasing for a good 14 years. Normally you’d see a sharp drop off after a few years.”
Whilst “it is what it is” has remained a constant of our cultural discourse for the last 15 years, the phrase’s meaning has shifted over time. “Initially, it had a sense of: don’t ascribe additional value or meaning to this phenomenon,” says Wilton. “But over time, it evolved to connote resignation. People would use it in situations where things couldn’t be changed.”
Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green perceives a fatalism in the phrase that tracks back to the macho masculinity of 70s war veterans. “It reminds me of the fatalism you have in books about the Vietnam War,” Green says, “people constantly having bits of themselves blown off and doing something appalling, and saying ‘it is what it is’ and being terribly brave about it.”
From the Vietnam War to the marginally less dehumanising environs of the Love Island villa: “it is what it is” is a one-size-fits-all leitmotif for every aspect of the human experience. “I can’t take credit for the phrase,” Sherif Lanre tells me. “But I will take credit for taking it mainstream in the public eye.” After Lanre introduced the phrase to the villa, housemates repeated it constantly, like malfunctioning Alexas, for the rest of the show’s run. “It’s a phrase to ease the bumps in life,” he explains.
In the Love Island villa, “it is what is” took on a new, almost mythological significance. It became a corrective to thought, a panacea against self-doubt, a curative for introspection – a modern-day Serenity Prayer for the Instagram generation. Sweet, befuddled Tommy Fury used the phrase like a magic talisman to ward off situations he found confusing, of which there were many. Its anti-intellectual qualities were useful in a scripted reality TV show, because so often housemates would find themselves in situations that made no sense, or were out of their hands. When you find yourself mugged off by a girl in lycra on national TV, what else is there to say, but: “it is what it is?”
“When you think something is out of your control,” Lanre says, “rather than dwelling on it, you say, ‘It is what it is.’ The only step you can take is moving forward… but if it’s within your control, it definitely isn't ‘it is what it is.’ Because you can change it.” In other words: Lord, give me the patience to accept the muggings off that I cannot change, and the courage to avoid the muggings off I can change.
After Love Island, ‘it is what it is’ took hold of the nation. Your mum started tweeting it; it was printed on mugs. But the phrase has a wider use beyond the Love Island villa. “It is what it is” is a charm against chaos in an increasingly fractured and bewildering world. In this age of rising income inequality, climate change, political instability, and global plague, Stoical forbearance seems a logical response to a world full of hopelessness and despair. As journalist Andy Beckett writes in the Guardian, “‘it is what it is’...[is] a mantra for an age of diminishing expectations, when many people no longer assume – unlike their postwar predecessors – that they will become richer than their parents, and live in an ever more sophisticated or just society.”
Lanre got kicked off Love Island after just nine days, for accidentally kicking fellow housemate Molly-May Hague in the groin and calling it a “cunt punt”. In his exit statement, he said – what else? – “it is what it is”.
A year on, he feels ill-used by the show’s producers. “I don’t think it was worth getting kicked off for,” Lanre tells me, explaining that he felt they demonstrated “unconscious racism” in their heavy-handed treatment of what was ultimately a crass joke, but not malicious.
Does he feel that the producers hung him out to dry? “Pretty much… in the nicest, most legal way possible,” Lanre responds. After our call, I reflect that in Lanre’s case, “it is what it is” also has a more sombre meaning: the acceptance that there are systems that may not always treat you fairly, because of the colour of your skin.
After Love Island wrapped, the producers put out a supercut of the Islanders saying “it is what it is”, cementing its entry into our common language. On Twitter, the video has 248,000 views. Lanre doesn’t feature.
UPDATE 06/07/20: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Sherif Lanre is a semi-professional footballer. The article has been updated to reflect the fact that he is a semi-professional rugby player.