Saturday, June 04, 2011

Good Optics/Bad Optics

Rita wrote: “Recently, I have been bumping into a strange use of the word optics on news broadcasts. It showed up when Americans were filmed dancing in the streets after they heard of the death of Osama bin Laden. One commentator remarked that he didn’t like the optics. Another use came up on Memorial Day, when a panoramic sweep of thousands of American flags in Arlington National Cemetery prompted another commentator to describe the scene as ‘powerful optics’. What’s going on?”

Jargon is going on. Optics originally referred to the branch of physics that deals with the properties and phenomena of light, thus being inextricably bound to sight. It is now being used as a political buzzword for public perception, whether constituents view an action as acceptable or unacceptable. Appearance trumps analysis.

Ben Zimmer, who now does the On Language column for the New York Times, thinks that it was originally a Canadian term indebted to the French optique, which means perception or point of view, in addition to the science of optics.

In a column that Zimmer wrote on March 7, 2010, he cited a Wall Street Journal article from May 31, 1978, that contained a quote by Robert Strauss (who served under President Jimmy Carter). Hinting that business leaders who went along with the administration’s anti-inflation program might be invited to the White House, he said, ''It would be a nice optical step.''

In a laugh-provoking prochronism, an article in The Review of Politics [72: 385-408, 2010] bears the title, Easily, At a Glance: Aristotle's Political Optics.

NOTE: Words to the Wise received a favorable review in Andrea McDougal’s Word Nerds Rejoice: Top 25 Blogs For Editing Geeks.

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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