There’s an opposite extreme to verbosity, and in my view it’s equally obtuse: reducing important messages to trite sayings that sound meaningful but provide no real context or content.
Example: “It is what it is.” Why, yes, come to think of it, that’s true, and is probably why we refer to it as “it” rather than “something else.” Despite its vacuity, “It is what it is” can sound quite deep, depending on who says it. When someone with enough seniority says it, the “it” statement comes across as profound and wise, and a less seasoned listener thinks, “Oh, of course! I needn’t question why things are as they are, or whether they can or should be altered, all that matters is recognizing that they are what they are.”
There’s a truism that we lawyers use often: “We’ve all won some that we should have lost, and lost some we should have won.” Coming from a first-year associate, this sounds like the cliché that it is; coming from a retired judge it sounds insightful. “You know, your Honor, that’s a good point. I guess there are no guarantees on outcomes, are there?”
Here’s an old chestnut from the world of sports: “It ain’t over till it’s over.” When this bit of folk wisdom gets trotted out in baseball games with scores of 10 to 2 in the bottom of the ninth inning, it sounds like a plea from the advertisers to not change the TV channel. Yes, there is a tiny chance that the home team will score eight runs, or even nine, but let’s get real: they can pretty much kiss this one goodbye. You can safely change the channel. “It’s not over till it’s over.” Yes, and Mike Huckabee may yet be the Republican presidential nominee.
Speaking of elections, in a highly political year we get an extra heapin’ helping of trite horse hockey from those seeking public office. Here’s a rule of thumb: think carefully about any statement that begins with the words “America” or “Americans.” They are almost always truisms, followed closely by “falsisms” from the left or the right. “Americans are a fair-minded people, and therefore we support a new 40 percent tax on the rich to fund film appreciation classes in kindergartens.” “America means freedom, and all Americans must be free to own and to openly carry bazookas in public.” True, we are generally a fair-minded bunch, and most of us prefer freedom to tyranny, but saying so doesn’t make whatever follows the statement equally true, any more than “It is what it is” means “It is what it should be.”
So, is “it” what it is? Great philosophers have puzzled over this truism. Leibniz wrote, “What is, is. It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be.” Shakespeare wrote, “To be or not to be.” Frank Sinatra sang, “Scooby dooby do.” All are deep thoughts on the nature of existence.
firstname.lastname@example.org revised this “classic” Quip Tide column from 2008. It now isn’t what it was. On Twitter: @louiecastoria