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"In and of itself" is a phrase I find myself using all the time. But in and of itself, the phrase "in and of itself" has no meaning. That is, the individual words don't seem to contribute to the whole meaning of the phrase.

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You mean, the phrase "in and of itself" has no meaning in and of itself? –  mmyers Feb 22 '11 at 18:10
    
@mmyers: No, I mean it's not obvious how each of the words in the phrase contribute to the overall meaning of the phrase. That is, the words "in", "and", "of", and "itself" have little to do with "intrinsicly"/"intrinsic", which is the rough single-word translation of the phrase. –  Billy ONeal Feb 22 '11 at 18:12
    
Oops. Reading comprehension failure. –  mmyers Feb 22 '11 at 18:14
    
In and of itself always reminds me of In no way, shape or form. Pointless expansion intended primarily to prevent your hearer from interrupting before you've thought of something more meaningful to add. –  FumbleFingers May 9 '11 at 17:26
    
Perhaps you simply don't understand the word intrinsically. "In" means pertaining to the thing, "and" means "and", "of" means inherit from, and "itself" means "itself". An equivalent formulation is "in its own capacity". –  Marcel Turing Nov 16 at 1:27

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The <thing>, in and of itself, ...

means the same as

The <thing> qua <thing> ...

"In and of itself" is very old, and the usages of in and of from which it springs are very rare now (in itself is merely rare on the ground; of itself seems to be nearly extinct in those meanings), but if it helps you can expand it to "in its essence and of its nature".

Words and phrases often hang on long after the things they originated from have vanished. You may know a few people who are ruthless, for instance, but when was the last time you described anyone as ruthfull?

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I don't think it's all that rare though. I use it myself all the time, and I see others use it reasonably often as well. In contrast, I've never seen the word "ruthfull" anywhere. +1. –  Billy ONeal Feb 22 '11 at 16:15
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@Billy: It's not that "in and of itself" is rare, but that "in itself" alone and "of itself" alone are rather rare these days. "In and of itself" is a sort of extra-strength version of either of the others. –  bye Feb 22 '11 at 16:24
    
Ah, that makes sense :) Here, have a green right angle thingy. –  Billy ONeal Feb 22 '11 at 20:36

It's a very stylish turn of phrase when used correctly. It's a way of showing a delicate relationship between things. For instance:

  1. The necktie was not, in and of itself, the cause of his strangulation.

Compare with:

  1. The necktie was not the cause of his strangulation.

In the first example, the tie is being acknowledged as being a factor in the event, but not a major or causative agent. In the second example, the tie is being completely ruled out. It has a slight nuance of removing blame from the item in question.

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I don't think this answers the question. The question is not asking what the meaning of the phrase is. –  ShreevatsaR Feb 22 '11 at 15:57
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Au contraire - the person asking the question said, "the phrase has no meaning." It was appropriate to state the meaning and usage of the term. –  The Raven Feb 22 '11 at 16:25
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No, I meant the "individual words in the phrase have no meaning" -- I obviously think the phrase itself has meaning given that I used it correctly in the question ;) –  Billy ONeal Feb 22 '11 at 18:14
    
@Billy ONeal: Thanks for clarifying. –  The Raven Feb 22 '11 at 19:26

I would challenge the premise of the question, as well as parts of the proferred answers.

Taken separately, the elements of “in and of itself” can be pictured as having their meanings borrowed from examples like the following:

  • The clock stopped of its own accord. (vs. of itself)

  • The work was complete in some respects. (vs. complete in itself; that is, did not require or depend on additions).

The combination of the two seems merely to serve as intensifier, as in the similar stock phrase, part and parcel.

As for etymology, my guess is that the phrase originated in a calque from the Latin per se, which means the same thing. For a long time English grammarians loved to emulate Latin, and in itself, of itself, or by itself may have been popularized as a sort of direct translation. Though intrinsically may be simpler and more elegant and easier to pronounce to modern English ears than the stuffy sounding in and of itself, there is surely no simper way of saying per se in Latin than per se. This may explain the longevity of in and of itself up to the time when the well-educated stopped automatically learning Latin as part of their education.

Finally, contrary to @bye,

The thing, in and of itself, . . .

has quite a different meaning than

The thing qua thing . . .

Qua means “in the role of” or “under the aspect of”, as in this quote from dictionary.com:

This might be thought a decisive objection to a federal judge’s writing about this subject even if the judge writes qua academic rather than qua judge. ―Richard A. Posner, An Affair of State

To take an “X qua X” example, one might say,

A Clockwork Orange works much better as a book qua storyline-for-a-movie than as a book qua book.

Or, as someone else in this forum quoted,

Bobby was the first pig I had met qua pig, not qua pork.

Finally, to truly come full circle, per se has seemed to slip from its original meaning of in itself / by itself (that is, separated from its context) and now just flabbily refers to a kind of lack of clarity. “I don’t agree with him per se” is now used to mean “I don’t especially agree with him, but I don’t especially disagree either.” The effect of this is to undermine the usefulness of the original phrase. Thus, the sentence “Guns are not bad per se; it’s what people do with them that is” can now be parsed two ways. It can either mean that guns are not intrinsically bad, or that they are not especially bad. As far as I can tell, there is no way to force the first meaning with falling back to some subtitute like intrinsically, or—you guessed it—in and of themselves.

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