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The phrase "kick the bucket" is a figurative phrase - it means "to die", although using it does not imply any actual kicking or any actual buckets.

The question I am asking is if the phrase "this is it" is figurative or literal?

Let us look at an example:

Well boys, I reckon this is it.

(from Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, written by Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, Terry Southern and uncredited Peter Sellers and James B. Harris; based on Red Alert by Peter George)

I take the meaning of the phrase as literal, as I can interpret the meaning straight from the definitions in dictionaries; without a need to reach for metaphorical explanation.

NOTE: this is related to this question/answer.

EDIT: I am looking for good arguments to either side.

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Would love to hear explanation for downvote - maybe the question can be improved. – Unreason Jun 21 '11 at 7:11
up vote 2 down vote accepted

While the sentence "This is it" can of course be literal, when there is a referent for "it", the kind of use you are referring to is not, because there is no referent for 'it' already established either in the discourse or by deixis; and I'm sure that if you asked the hearers what "it" was you would not get the same answer from all; yet, they all understand the phrase.

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+1, Thank you, will think about this. – Unreason Jun 20 '11 at 16:38
There are countless contexts where This it it doesn't even imply a likely negative outcome. A football coach might say it to his team before they went out on the pitch for the World Cup final, for example. – FumbleFingers Jun 20 '11 at 17:01

Building on Colin Fine's answer, I would add that without a clearer referent, "it" can be taken to mean the climactic moment, the moment of crisis or decision, a big opportunity.

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Yes, this is a 6th sense listed in American Heritage:"Used to refer to a crucial situation or culmination: This is it—the rivals are finally face to face. That's it! I won't tolerate any more foolishness." – Unreason Jun 21 '11 at 7:27

I suspect that if you translated "this is it" literally into other languages you would get a phrase that doesn't mean the same thing. Trying it with Google translate gives a number of phrases, and I don't believe the most literal one — C'est ça. — conveys the sense: this is the big one coming up.

So I would say it's idiomatic.

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I'd call it an idiomatic phrase. It means "this is the end of (some aforementioned series of events, or the existence of something)". As in "this is it for Morris Dancing", meaning Morris Dancing is dying out.

Whether it's figurative, I'd say it's not literal, as "it" doesn't mean anything without a context. But it's not figurative in the sense of evoking a certain situation, as in "this is the end of the road," so I guess it's not figurative either. Thus, I'd call it an idiom.

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For the argument that "it" doesn't mean anything without a context - I am not convinced by that: 1) it would disqualify most pronouns plus, 2) more importantly, literal is: "being in accordance with, conforming to, or upholding the exact or primary meaning of a word or words." and my example does not violate that, does it? 3) Finally, idiom is not satisfying, nor constructive, since "idioms are usually presumed to be figures of speech contradicting the principle of compositionality; yet the matter remains debated" – Unreason Jun 20 '11 at 16:07
I agree "idiom" isn't satisfying, but what I'm saying is it that the literal/figurative distinction is unsatisfying as well. If it's literal, what does it mean? The closest I can come to means something different from "the end" (it means demonstration of something: I have a car, this is it). I suppose to compare with your "kick the bucket" example, "This is it" doesn't imply anything either. But then is it figurative? Kicking the bucket invokes an image related to death (not sure how), but is that what makes it figurative, rather than just idiomatic? – Carlos Jun 20 '11 at 16:22

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