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shameless pleading

Optics

Veni, vidi, vomito.

Dear Word Detective: Does “optics” now mean “appearance”? I stopped in my tracks. I’ve never seen this usage of the word “optics” before this article from today’s Huffington Post: “But the optics of the decision will nonetheless ding the former Massachusetts governor….” Presumably the writer means something like “appearance,” but I could be mistaken. I blame the article’s editors for being asleep at the wheel and letting jargon triumph over clarity. What does the Word Detective think? — Pamela the Reluctant Prescriptor.

Well, I say it’s spinach, and I say the, um, heck with it. Or something. I, too, would blame the editors at the HuffPo (as they call it), but I’m not sure they actually have any. After all, ninety percent of their content is lifted from other news sources (which have actual editors) and only lightly re-written. The article you mention appears, refreshingly, to be original to HuffPo and was written by their “Senior Political Reporter,” an alumnus of a print newspaper in DC, which makes him a real journalist as such things go these days. In any case, I’m sure that “optics” in that story would be just fine with the possibly hypothetical HuffPo editor. It’s just the sort of “inside the beltway” terminology that the Washington press corps likes to sprinkle through its copy to give readers the tingly sense that the reporter knows all the super-secret inside poop and should be taken Very Seriously.

“Optics” in that sentence does indeed mean “appearance” or “public perception,” the simple “how it looks” likely to be understood by voters, which in this case is being counterposed to the supposed deeper reasoning behind Mitt Romney’s decision not to sign a pledge being circulated by a political group. Had the author simply used “appearance” or “public perception,” that would have been more clearly simply his opinion. Like all jargon deployed in everyday life, “optics” implies expertise and inside knowledge.

“Optics” in this usage does have an interesting history, which was uncovered last year by Ben Zimmer in his all-too-brief stint as successor to William Safire as the On Language columnist at the Sunday New York Times Magazine. (Don’t get me started on the stupidity of the Times in eliminating that feature, for which Zimmer had been a brilliant choice.) Zimmer found an instance of Jimmy Carter’s “inflation counselor,” Robert Strauss, noting in 1978 that a certain action “…would be a nice optical step,” meaning that it would look good from a public relations standpoint. The noun form “optics” then steadily gained momentum through the 1980s in today’s sense of “public appearance.”

Oddly enough, as Zimmer discovered, that spreading use of “optics” by political insiders and observers took place largely in Canada, not the US. According to a Canadian lexicographer contacted by Zimmer, the readiness of the Canadians to adopt the usage may have been due to the existence in French of the term “optique.” That “optique,” in addition to all the standard uses we put “optics” to (physics, photography, opthalmology, etc.), is used to mean “perspective, point of view” and, by extension, “appearances in general.” It seems likely that the early adopters of the political jargon “optics” included many bilingual French-Canadians who were already familiar with “optique.”

Still, as Zimmer noted, “optics” could not have been an entirely Canadian invention, because it also cropped up occasionally, largely in business reporting, throughout the 1980s in the US. The appeal of the term is obvious. As Jan Freeman, language columnist for the Boston Globe, noted in 2008, “optics,” unlike fuzzy constructs such as “appearances,” has an aura of scientific precision that appeals to advisers and consultants striving to lend weight to their words. “It invokes a whole set of tech-and-science terms like physics, statistics, and tectonics,” Freeman said, “as well as Greek-derived high-concept nouns like hermeneutics, aesthetics, and pragmatics, all with an aura of brainy precision.” All I can say is that “optics” may invoke all those things, but that doesn’t mean just tweaking the spin will muddle the minds of regular people. A few years ago I adopted the acronym JWILL (pronounced “jay-will”) as my personal guide to understanding why public figures do what they do. It stands for “Just What It Looks Like,” and it hasn’t failed me yet.

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