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Optics

On 23 March 2011 The Guardian noted that the lexicon of politics in Britain had added a new term. It quoted a report that had run on its own front page the day before: “Senior cabinet ministers admitted ‘the emotional optics’ of cruise missiles raining down, backed by coalition military briefings, had unwelcome echoes of Iraq”. It also quoted from another London paper:

This UN action, which started on Saturday with French warplanes and American cruise missiles hitting Gadhafi’s forces, comes none too soon. U.S. President Barack Obama temporized for weeks, worrying about the optics of waging war in another Arab state after the Iraq fiasco.

Daily Star, 19 Mar. 2011.

Optics is political shorthand for the public perception of some situation. It’s far from new. William Safire had noted it in his last-ever On Language column in the New York Times in September 2009, quoting a reader, Tom Short of California: “It seems that politicians are now working to ensure that their policy positions are stated in a way that’s ‘optically acceptable’ to their constituents.” Safire’s successor Ben Zimmer wrote about the term in his own On Language column the following year:

When politicians fret about the public perception of a decision more than the substance of the decision itself, we’re living in a world of optics. Of course, elected officials have worried about outward appearances since time immemorial, but optics puts a new spin on things, giving a scientific-sounding gloss to P.R. and image-making.

New York Times, 7 Mar. 2010.

Ben Zimmer recorded that he had found it from three decades earlier:

On May 31, 1978, The Wall Street Journal quoted Jimmy Carter’s special counselor on inflation, Robert Strauss, as saying that business leaders who went along with Carter’s anti-inflation measures might be invited to the White House as a token of appreciation. “It would be a nice optical step,” Strauss said. The Journal was not impressed by the idea: the following day, an editorial rebuffed Strauss’s overtures with the line “Optics will not cure inflation.”

Despite this early appearance its early heartland had been Canada, not the US. Bilingual Canadians know optique, which in French can refer to optics but can also mean “perspective, point of view”. Ben Zimmer commented, “Beyond those core meanings, optique has been extended to visual appearances in general (much like the German equivalent Optik). Canadian-French usage adds a more politically focused angle, which seems to have been imported across the bilingual divide.”

Its English loan translation optics became established as part of Canadian political jargon many years ago. A recent example:

The optics of police investigating themselves in such cases as the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski presents an “unwinnable” image problem, the officer in charge of the investigation into the Dziekanski case says.

Globe and Mail, Toronto, 22 Sep. 2009.

It has now reached the UK, via the US. We can only wait to learn if it will establish itself here or is, as I suspect, a little too odd-sounding for British sensibilities.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 2 Apr. 2011

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Last modified: 2 April 2011.