Friday, February 15, 2008

It Is What It Is... (Linguistics)

You probably know that a Congressional Committee is holding hearing about steroid use in professional baseball and that this week they had Roger Clemens (who says he didn't use steroids) and Clemens' trainer (who says he did use steroids) on the Hill giving testimony.

I would like to think that Congress had better things to do, but whatever...

National Public Radio had a story this week on a moment in the proceedings of that committee and I thought the story was interesting. The story had to do with the meaning of a phrase -- an idiom we here regularly that means, well, what does it mean?

The phrase is "it is what it is..."

The members of Congress present evidently weren't sure of the technical meaning of that phrase. The reason for the discussion was that the phrase gets used in a recording that Clemens' trainer made without his knowledge. At a point in the recording where the trainer could have said something like "we both know you used steroids," instead he says "it is what it is."

The congressional committee discussed whether the phrase was a regionalism specific to New York and evidently decided that it wasn't. One language expert compared the phrase to tofu, saying that it takes on the flavor of the words around it. And it was evidently decided that the phrase is used mostly as a way to put an end to a discussion. What do you say afterwards? It isn't what it's not...?

One linguist suggested that the phrase was stolen from the Bible, from Exodus 20:7. He suggested that it went back to Moses meeting God and asking God's name. God said, "I am who I am."

Like it often ends up in Congress, the discussion resolved nothing in the context of the issue being investigated - steroid use in baseball. But as a linguistic exploration, it perhaps had some value of its own.

The story was interesting...

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