January 16, 2016 optics
(1990’s | businese? governese? | “appearance,” “perceptions,” “p.r.”)
While this expression is used mainly in political circles, it may not have originated there but in the business world. Not that there’s a great gulf fixed between them, or anything. “Optics” is a word for how things look, and it is used mainly by officials and journalists, though one comes across sightings in other fields now and then. “Optical” is an occasional adjective variant, or used to be. We’re not talking about binoculars and gunsights, even though “optics” may be used collectively to refer to devices with lenses. “It’s bad optics” means “it looks bad” or “it smells bad” or “it leaves a bad taste” — who would have thought such a humble expression the occasion for synesthesia?
Even though “optics” remains much more common in the Canadian press than in the U.S. press to this day, the earliest hits I found on LexisNexis (1986 and 1987) attributed the usage to American businessmen. It started to sound less exotic in the 1990’s, at least in Canada. Colleagues reported that it was a favorite of Jeffrey Skilling of Enron; he was listened to respectfully in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and his advocacy may have give the word a boost. Macmillan Dictionary’s blogger suggests that 2011 was the year all hell broke loose. I wouldn’t call “optics” in this sense a common word, even today, but you have to know what it means to follow the news. I prefer to think our use of the term comes from Canada; then it would join “cougar,” the only other expression I’ve covered with a clear Canadian origin. Ben Zimmer of the New York Times makes the case.
Part of the point of this word is that the institution that looks good, or bad — usually but not always the government — is assumed to be in control not just of what it’s doing but of how it comes across. Creating a favorable image is part of the job; “bad optics” are caused by lapses. The phrase is confusing, because it ought to mean inadequate vision; it sounds like a deficiency on the part of the observer rather than the agent or creator. But the ocular capabilities of observers are not in question when we discuss the optics of a situation or proposal; everyone can see the results of the latest triumph or gaffe. Attention to outward appearances, deceptive or otherwise, is as old as politics, but in recent years U.S. government officials have become much more open about attributing public resistance or discontent simply to poor “messaging,” as they say nowadays, or “public relations,” as we said in the prehistoric 1970’s. I associate this posture most strongly with Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, who still refuse to admit that there was a strong case against going to war in Iraq. The fact that nearly everyone else sees it that way only means that they failed to manipulate us effectively.
“Optics” serves the usual political ends of language to some extent; it is mildly obfuscatory, forcing the listener to waste precious seconds figuring out what the spokesperson is actually saying instead of focusing on the malfeasance being covered up. A writer in the Toronto Star (May 19, 1997) noted that the use of the word “optics” itself constituted a “dead giveaway that something unseemly is about to happen.” Politicians must walk a fine linguistic line, burnishing their reputations without committing themselves to anything. That requires in turn a lot of sidling up to what you mean rather than stating it clearly. It’s not a matter of flat-out lying, more a moment of misdirection long enough to distract voters from the latest scandal. “Optics” is just one more expression that helps them do that. But it has become common enough that it doesn’t serve the turn so well any more. New expressions must arise to pull the wool over our eyes.