I am what I am ....

Baker, John M. JMB at STRADLEY.COM
Fri Apr 23 11:45:08 UTC 2010

Excellent discussion, Garson, although I don't necessarily agree with the condemnation in the last sentence, since I think "I am what I am" and its variants can convey real meaning and do so effectively.  Even where the expression is elliptical, ambiguous, or obtuse, it can still serve a function.  When Popeye says "I yam what I yam, and that's all I yam," his inarticulateness is part of the point.  I don't know what "I am that I am" means, but it's still one of the great passages of the Bible.
There is a discussion of "I am what I am" on TV Tropes, at http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/IAmWhatIAm:
<<Often a character will have an aspect of himself of which he's ashamed (or that society insists he should be). It might have something to do with his heritage, such as being illegitimately born, half-demon or some other inheritance considered unfortunate by society. It might have something to do with his lifestyle; e.g., if he's gay or geeky, or he collects belly button lint. Maybe he was forced into an Emergency Transformation which he can't undo, and he's been bemoaning What Have I Become. Or maybe it's an obstacle he faces, like being handicapped, dyslexic or incapable of thinking rationally. Could even be a matter of love. Whatever the issue is, expect the character at some point to receive an epiphany that leads to him embracing whatever makes him different. 
Often leads to a Crowning Moment Of Awesome, An Aesop or both. If in a musical, expect a whole song to be given over to this, and it may be a Dark Reprise of the I Want Song. Due to its nature as a characterization trope that signals self-acceptance, confidence, and a certain degree of enlightenment, not to mention vanquishing inner demons, may be a rather spoilery trope.>>
John Baker


From: American Dialect Society on behalf of Garson O'Toole
Sent: Fri 4/23/2010 12:51 AM
Subject: Re: I am what I am ....

A superficial analysis might label the phrases logically redundant or
pleonastic. Another saying that adheres to this generalized pattern
is: "Wherever you go, there you are"; however, none of these phrases
is truly redundant. The repetition demands reinterpretation, and the
meaning is usually complex and context dependent.

In a review of a collection of Popeye comics at Salon titled "I Yam
What I Yam!" the writer Dennis Wolk gives this explanation for
Popeye's pronouncement:

He's deathly afraid of "evil spiriks," and chalks up anything he
doesn't understand to them. Even the familiar catchphrase that
provides this volume's subtitle is a declaration of pride in
ignorance. It's his response, more than once, to a string of insults:
"No matter what ya calls me -- I am what I am an' tha's ALL I yam!"


Here double redundancy is not enough as Popeye employs a nominally
triply-redundant expression. In another context one member of a couple
might tell another "I am what I am." Perhaps this means "My basic
personality and behaviors are fixed, and you will not be able to
change them." Alternatively, it might mean "I belong to a stigmatized
subpopulation, but I hope you still love me."

Faced with an accusation of infidelity based on evidence of a
rendezvous, one partner might say "It is what it is". Perhaps this
means "Yes, I admit I did have an affair." Alternatively, it might
mean "No, of course, I did not have an affair. It was just a meeting."

While these pseudo-tautological sayings are not redundant they are
still defective because elliptical, ambiguous, and obtuse expressions
should rarely be used for communication in my opinion.


On Thu, Apr 22, 2010 at 10:53 PM, Randy Alexander
<strangeguitars at gmail.com> wrote:
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> Subject:      Re: I am what I am ....
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> Since this discussion seems to be casting the net a little wider:
> "Nothing succeeds like success."
> --
> Randy Alexander
> Jilin City, China
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> Language in China (group blog): http://www.sinoglot.com/blog
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