Campus Talk: 'What It Is'?

The student worker in our department office had messed up the committee report so that Page One was tucked between Pages Three and Five, and the last page was missing. A colleague of mine called this problem to her attention. “My bad!” she said cheerfully as she walked away.

A pause hung in the air. “Whatever happened to ‘I’m sorry’?” muttered the committee head, and we proceeded without the faulty report.

By

October 12, 2010
 
 

The student worker in our department office had messed up the committee report so that Page One was tucked between Pages Three and Five, and the last page was missing. A colleague of mine called this problem to her attention. “My bad!” she said cheerfully as she walked away.

A pause hung in the air. “Whatever happened to ‘I’m sorry’?” muttered the committee head, and we proceeded without the faulty report.

The phrase my bad, exported to the U.S. about a decade ago from Australia, has become a curse. Initially, it seemed a lighthearted way of claiming responsibility: not mea culpa, with its Catholic overtones of sinning and eventual forgiveness, but a slangy alternative. Turning bad into a noun was cute, if at first a bit grating, and it could apply to so many situations.

Chose the wrong textbook at the bookstore? My bad! Got caught plagiarizing your essay from Wikipedia? My bad! Forgot to attend class for the last two months? My bad!

It soon became clear that my bad wasn’t so much an acceptance of responsibility as shrugging it off. A rough translation of my bad these days might be “Okay, maybe I screwed up, but it’s no big deal, so stop pestering me.” And that’s simply not acceptable in many situations. It does matter that the assignment was late or that the homework wasn’t done at all. I’m still waiting for a follow-up like my good, to mean “I’ll make good on that.”

A companion phrase that emerged a few years ago plays on a simple tautology: It is what it is. In fact, it’s not as dumb as it sounds. It’s sometimes uttered with a fatalistic shrug, as in a summing-up of the campus cafeteria that serves inedible hamburgers, or in the wake of an administrative glitch that’s not going to get any better. Given American education’s ostensible reformist zeal, it even had a certain old world charm, an acknowledgment that certain situations were unchangeable, and that was life.

But the third or fourth time I heard it applied, I recognized it for what it was. “This copy machine is broken again!” screamed an assistant professor already late to class.

The secretary shrugged. “It is what it is.”

A more appropriate response would have been “I’ll call the repairman.” And since I also use that machine, I walked over and asked her to do just that.

"But it’s too late for her to get those copies made.”

“True. But it’ll help others. So call, okay?”

She twitched. “Whatever.”

Of course, whatever is the forebear for a lot of these blow-offs. Starting as a seemingly agreeable rejoinder (“Would you like to meet in my office or the seminar room?” “Whatever.”), it soon shifted to a fob-off (“I thought I told you the meeting was at three.” “Whatever”). The not-so-hidden meaning is “This is a stupid point to insist on, and don’t bother me.” Once on the lips of all sullen students, whatever seems to have lost popularity as middle-aged faculty members adopted it.

What’s new in this line? Keep your ears open for pretty much, as in “That pretty much sums it up.” Cut down to two words, its scope has broadened to include a wealth of sins: “Did you really blow off that research paper?” “Pretty much.” “Is that all you have to report?” “Pretty much.” It masks an avowal behind a laconic semi-affirmative.

My favorite, though, is Good luck with that! -- said with just enough edge for the hearer to suspect sarcasm but not be entirely sure, as in “I don’t really like English courses, but this semester I’m taking Shakespeare, Milton, and Modern Poetry.” “Good luck with that!” Or “I’ll have to finish my conference paper on the plane to New Orleans.” “Good luck with that!”

In fact, I heard it just the other day as a capper to someone who said he was trying to solve the longstanding parking problem at our university. In that particular instance, even I might have said, “It is what it is.”

Bio

David Galef is pretty much a professor of literature and creative writing or whatever at Montclair State University. He also writes dispatches from U of All People for Inside Higher Ed.

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