‘I wish to bring to Friends’ attention a particularly heinous offence against careful language.’
I have become somewhat preoccupied recently by how we use language (both verbally and in writing) and what we are really communicating and saying. Quakers have a long history of being careful about how we use language, and of understanding the weight that words and phrases have. This goes back to the plain speech of early Friends, who took care to value each other and champion equality by challenging the hierarchical language of the day.
I wish to bring to Friends’ attention a particularly heinous offence against this type of care: the increasingly ubiquitous phrase ‘It is what it is’. Having done the obligatory search engine investigation I found that the phrase was first identified in a 1949 article in the US, about frontier-era living. It seems to have lain dormant until this century, however, when it began to gain traction in relation to sporting losses. It is now everywhere, and 2020 seems to be its year.
During this second lockdown, I have had this mindless phrase said to me at least once every day, as if it was a pandemic mantra. I want to start a campaign to banish it from popping out of our mouths all over the place. This may seem a little extreme – and given all the things I could be in action about, I understand if people think it’s a little odd. But let me state my case. What this pernicious little phrase does is shut down conversation. ‘I’ve got to stay at home for a month’, ‘I haven’t seen my elderly increasingly frail mother for seven months’, ‘I haven’t hugged anyone for so long’, ‘I only see some of the people I love most in the world on a screen’. Are people really saying that ‘It is what it is’ is an adequate response to this typical but heart-wrenching roll call of current experience? The phrase is a full stop to the expression of distress, a dead end to feeling and emotion. It effectively says ‘I don’t want to hear’, and if that is so then at least let us be honest about it.
When a family member again trotted out the well-worn response, I found myself saying ‘That may be so, but I am allowed my feelings about it’. The next time you find yourself slipping into the easy route of a mundane reply, I ask you please to pause. What else could you say? How about ‘How do you feel about that?’ or ‘What does that mean to you?’ or ‘Is there anything I can do to help you?’ Many wonderful possibilities can flow forth if one engages both one’s head and one’s heart, and does not let one’s mindless mouth dictate.
This year has been brutal and extraordinary. It has stirred up anxiety, grief, longing, loneliness, uncertainty, unity, community, love, thoughtfulness, courage, and everything in between. Let us embrace these things and support each other in the holding of them. Let’s allow our ears to hear and our lips to pour forth what might support each other, not stop us in our tracks.
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