It is what it is: the language of acceptance

Listen to the author reading this blog post:

a drinking glass lying on its side on a wooden floor with milk spilling from it

by Liz Walter

I’ve been struck recently by the huge popularity of the phrase it is what it is. According to the New York Times, it first appeared in 1949, but it is only in this century that it has really caught on. Like many phrases that find sudden popularity, it is a neat way of expressing a concept that many of us have experienced: that a difficult situation which can’t be changed must be accepted:

My application was late and I can’t apply again until next year. Still, it is what it is.

Of course, there are other ways of expressing the same idea. Phrases such as that’s just the way it is/things are or there’s nothing (I/you etc.) can do about it are also common, though less catchy:

It’s difficult having to work at night, but that’s just the way things are.

I don’t like the friends my son’s hanging out with, but there’s nothing I can do about it.

There are several nice phrases that express the idea that you must accept something because it has already happened and can’t be changed. For instance, we might say that we can’t wind the clock back, or that what’s done is done. More colourfully, we could say it’s no use crying over spilled (UK & US)/spilt (UK) milk:

I wish I’d accepted the other job. But I can’t wind the clock back.

“I made lots of mistakes.” “Never mind. What’s done is done.”

We lost a lot of money, but it’s no use crying over spilled milk.

Another way of accepting difficult situations is to downplay their importance using a phrase such as it’s not the end of the world. Like ‘it is what it is’, the phrase first-world problems has also caught on this century, primarily over the last decade. We use it either to apologize for complaining about trivial things or to mock other people who do so:

I failed my driving test. Ah well, it’s not the end of the world.

I couldn’t find any ripe avocados. First world problems, I know!

Sometimes it takes time before we can accept something difficult that has happened. We can say we have come to terms with a bad or sad situation. If someone finds closure or has a sense of closure, they are able to move on with their lives after an (often serious) unpleasant experience. If you make a deliberate decision to stop thinking about something bad that has happened, you draw a line under it:

It took him a long time to come to terms with his illness.

We won’t be able to find closure until his killer is caught.

It’s time to draw a line under the matter and move on.

I hope you have found some useful new phrases in this post, but if you don’t have time to learn them, don’t worry too much – it is what it is!

30 thoughts on “It is what it is: the language of acceptance

  1. “I don’t like the friends my son’s hanging out with, but there’s nothing I can do about it”.

    In many ways, I don’t enjoy using the pronoun “it” in poetry… I usually replace it with ‘thee’… or leave dots …
    It is like cutting something… never a poetic pronoun…
    Can I know if someone has some suggestions to make poems hearty and musical, without using the so-called “it”?

  2. Dieter Walz

    Hi Liz,

    this article, again, is extremely helpful. As a long-time student
    of the English language (learning will never end) I am looking forward
    to each new post. Your posts have enriched my language skills ever since.
    Thanks a lot.

    Dieter Walz, Frankfurt

    1. Judith Carter

      Nice article. I have never heard wind the clock back. Always turn the clock back. Because it’s about the hands on the face of the clock. Winding it backwards doesn’t make time go back. It just destroys the mechanism. Turning the hands back would in theory turn back time.

      1. Liz Walter

        Yes, you are right that ‘turn’ can also be used in this phrase. I guess ‘wind’ caught on because you can use a winding motion on lots of clocks to turn them either forward or back – my own kitchen clock, for example!

  3. I loved this article. So fruitful. I look forward for new posts and to read other articles that you’ve written. Thank you for this nice evening reading session. It was nice.

    Daniella, Stockholm Sweden

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes, I think most people would associate that, as you say, with Slaughterhouse Five. Not sure it has quite made it into mainstream English.

      1. Beta Soe

        What about “Let bygone be bygone”?.I think it also has the same sense of what you said.
        Thank you so much for your useful examples.

  4. Ziggy

    As a lyricist, I frequently make use of sentence transformations to find/obtain the proper number of syllables or well rhyming words, so I think this article to be extremely useful and helpful as a method of doing it.

  5. Scott Fenton

    I believe “It is what it is” frequents American, more than UK/Commonwealth, writing and conversation, and this may imbue it with a nuance beyond ‘acceptance.’ In my crazy country, where we believe almost anything can be done with the right inputs (e.g., time, money, grit), the phrase offers up an image of the reverse side of the coin, an existential truce, the space between a rock and a hard place.

    Of course, many languages have similar sayings, but the nuances of difference seems partially cultural. French and Indonesian, having learned these to a sufficiently conversational level, have similar phrases but with subtle yet distinct shifts in meaning.

    Glad to have run across this interesting blog.

  6. Many thanks for this post. When reading the phrases above, I remembered a phrase I heard from Sister Monica Joan in an episode of Call the Midwife, which seems related to this theme, particularly in health-related issues:

    “What can’t be cured must be endured”.

  7. DUE to circumstances beyond one’s CONTROL,…
    …the FACT REMAins that DESPiTE ALL/ BLAH BLAH BLAH ! DEATH & TAXES REMain & You cannot CHANGE the POWER oF FATE or DESTiny !
    aka Anthony Laurence GiuLiani

  8. Venturino Salvatore

    I love to express myself in 2/3 languages,it’s very helpfull for training….I’m an english,,german and Italian Teacher and like to make always new Erfahrungen,nuove esperienze,try to repeat what you are doing in your head,speak,write and translate,so you notice where you can do better or remind in an easy way.In german it’s called “Eselsbruecke”

  9. Gen

    There as a movie we used to watch as kids.
    Whatever will be, will be!
    Seems to me it’s the same meaning. Just people using language as change. I’m quite surprised you didn’t include this phrase.
    Wasn’t this from the French language & paraphrased? The Sound of Words!

  10. Hi Dearest Liz,

    You are refreshing
    Our minds
    Our souls
    Our harts*(hearts)

    Stimulating our senses
    To memorize
    To learn more,

    We are getting old
    We must learn every day
    And feel each word how to use…
    Enjoy reading phrases once again… again… 

    New word 
    To have a new life
    New hope
    Never to sigh
    Never to die. 
    *Hart: I write hearts in my poetic way          
    Why is “heart” pronounced with two syllables (he-art)? 
            Hart is one in your body… Can you have two harts, tell me?
    My poetry book “Lance My Hart at a Glance” 

    Stanzaed Instantly
    March 17, 2023

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