What it is is what it is

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Jay Livingston sends a compendium of tautologies from The Wire:

Jay comments:

They seem to have at least two different senses. The most obvious is the impossibility of change. "It is what it is,"  "What's done is done"  (and cannot be undone — there may be other similarities between The Wire and MacBeth). 

But some of the tautologies suggest a different meaning — that this particular instance of X is (or should be) like the Platonic ideal X. "Men should be men, and women should be women." "Let Keeley be Keeley" (cf. "Let Nixon be Nixon.") "If you with us, you with us."

Sometimes the interpretation of such phrases seems to be that you shouldn't make things unnecessarily complicated. For example, the song "What I am":

What I am is what I am
You what you are, or what?

I'm not aware of too many things
I know what I know, if you know what I mean

And maybe Gertrude Stein's "(a) rose is a rose is a rose is a rose". Or the semi-tautological remark attributed to Sigmund Freud, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar".

Elsewhere on LLOG we've discussed the CD case that "automatically becomes portable when carried", which seems to be a different sort of case entirely.


  1. Evan said,

    January 26, 2018 @ 3:51 pm

    I wish I could come up with a good excuse to re-watch The Wire like that…

  2. Pickering said,

    January 26, 2018 @ 3:53 pm

    The Wire is what it is. The best TV ever.

  3. Thomas Rees said,

    January 26, 2018 @ 5:41 pm

    אהיה אשר אהיה is what occurred to me (Exodus 3.14; ’ehyeh ’ăšer ’ehyeh – I am that I am)

  4. D.O. said,

    January 26, 2018 @ 6:49 pm

    But "I know what I know" is not necessarily a tautology. It might be more along the lines of Rumsfeldian poetry. BTW "tautology is tautology" would make a slightly amusing self-referential joke.

    [(myl) That depends on whether "what I know" is an indirect question ("I wonder what she gave gave me") or a fused relative ("I spent what she gave me"). If it's a fused relative then the meaning is essentially "I know the things that I know", which lies within the boundaries of tautology.]

  5. Rubrick said,

    January 26, 2018 @ 7:31 pm

    I've been watching chess videos lately, and this sort of commentary comes up a lot: "Capturing here might expose your king to pressure, but still, a pawn is a pawn." This seems to have yet a different shade of meaning than the previous examples.

    Somewhat similar is this sports cliché: "They got lucky there, but still, a win is a win."

    [(myl) Like "A kiss is still a kiss", those examples seem similar to the "don't overcomplicate things" group.]

  6. chris said,

    January 26, 2018 @ 9:11 pm

    @D.O.: The first rule of Tautology Club is the first rule of Tautology Club. (xkcd, parodying Fight Club)

    Tautology Club meets in the Tautology Club meeting room, at the time scheduled for Tautology Club to meet — although these are more like almost tautologies, since they are actual statements that Tautology Club does indeed meet as planned.

    P.S. I presume that "I know what I know, if you know what I mean" is not intended as a genuine conditional, because that would be even more bizarre, but it doesn't really seem to fit a biscuit conditional either. Is there a term for that sort of pseudo-conditional? A conditional is a conditional, except when it isn't.

  7. Luc said,

    January 26, 2018 @ 9:41 pm

    One of the tautologies is not quite a tautology, and/or possibly a third category: "The thing about the Old Days is they was the Old Days" is very clearly a change of emphasis.

    Further note: "If you know what I mean" is probably not a conditional; or, at least, if it is, it is to be read in the sense that "Ignore what I just said if you don't understand the reference".

  8. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 26, 2018 @ 10:51 pm

    These senses as described seem more or less unifiable… what's done is really done, let Nixon be basic Nixon, what I am is simply what I am…

    And @D.O., given that these statements are meaningful, I suppose none is tautological in the formal logical / rhetorical sense.

    Though my head is hurting trying to see how "I know what I know" has an interpretation where italics is an indirect question… though "I don't know what I know" surely has both interpretations. Which makes me wish we had heard a second speaker refute one of these statements with its negation in the clip… presumably not "No, it isn't what it is", etc. :D

  9. Andrew Usher said,

    January 26, 2018 @ 11:29 pm

    The thing about tautologies, logically, is that their negation must be a contradiction (impossibility). So D.O.'s linking of 'what I know is what I know' to Rumsfeld makes sense: the two 'I know' are semantically the same but refer to different levels of knowledge (which is not inherent in the grammar).

    The opposite would be 'I know what I don't know' which is clearly a meaningful statement and not a contradiction. It's the 'known knowns' vs. 'known unknowns' (and you could argue that 'unknown knowns' are impossible, but that's not relevant here).

    Some other statements, though, really are tautologies, and are only expressed for emphasis (or because the speaker doesn't know what else to say), like "what's done is done", the opposite of which is "what's done is not done", a true impossibility with the intended meaning of 'done'.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

    [(myl) Again this is all valid if the clauses "what I know" and "what I don't know" are indirect questions, but not if they are fused relatives.]

  10. ===Dan said,

    January 27, 2018 @ 10:07 am

    Thomas Rees: See also Popeye: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LzHmunZxJeM

    And Andrew Usher: on "unknown knowns," see "don't know we know" here: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=27890

  11. Robert Coren said,

    January 27, 2018 @ 10:28 am

    the CD case that "automatically becomes portable when carried", which seems to be a different sort of case entirely.

    I see what you did there.

  12. Todd said,

    January 27, 2018 @ 10:47 am

    For the second class ("Men should be men"), we're presumably not dealing with identification of sets: the predication is 'behave like (stereo/prototypical) men', not 'be a male human'. And the modal elements are a big hint that these aren't tautological in a strict sense; they're assertions about norms, not about facts.

    For the first class, there's some prior work on those sorts of tautologies, argued to be derived via implicature: [Table of Contents] [pdf]

  13. Mr Punch said,

    January 27, 2018 @ 2:25 pm

    @Andrew Usher – Unknown knowns commonly appear as the motives for the second murders in mystery stories.

  14. Andrew Usher said,

    January 27, 2018 @ 6:33 pm

    Yes, I suppose my comment about 'unknown known' was hasty – and indeed analogously 'I don't know what I know' is coherent, as is 'I don't know what I don't know' (unknown unknowns).

    My argument about 'I know what I know' is that the difference between the tautological and non-tautological readings is a matter of semantics, not grammar. They are two different possible meanings of 'what I know', and both are possible answers to the rephrased question 'What do I know?' (this is what myl means by 'indirect question', which obviously confused someone else) – 'what I know' can be 'the facts that I know' or 'the things that [I know] I know about'.

    The 'fused relative' analysis is not necessary here, and is not likely to be understood by non-linguists. It is not, I guess, wrong, but again is context-sensitive because we use 'what I know' as a NP (as in 'what I know is …') only to refer to a specific area of knowledge, not to the whole of the things one knows. And if it's context-sensitive anyway, what does the grammatical explanation add?

  15. Samuel Buggeln said,

    January 28, 2018 @ 11:17 pm

    Fun video. I wonder why this would appear to be a more common rhetorical tool in The Wire writing room than in, say, Modern Family? From the supercut it seems to be used with equal frequency on all sides of the central conflict. I wonder if it has to do with the tautology generally invoking a kind of powerlessness in the face of fate? (Even paradoxically in the case of "you did what you did"?) I wonder if the stakes are so high in The Wire's stories—that is, the cost of making the wrong decision is so dire—that it feels right that anyone involved would find an odd, if temporary, relief in declaring themselves, and their allies, without power for a moment. There's a bit of raw comfort in the feeling that "the die is cast"— a phrase that seems like it could almost substitute for a lot of the tautologies in the video.

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