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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

laser-focused

(1990’s | journalese? athletese? | “single-minded,” “intent (on)”)

The output of a laser meets a casual definition of “focused”: a light beam formed from many waves, all of the same wavelength, projected through a very narrow opening. There are those who believe that the uniformity of the light waves means that it is incorrect to describe a laser as “focused,” because focusing happens only with light of many different wavelengths, but it’s also true that there are such things as focused lasers. Besides, it’s the uniformity that gives the impression of focus, optics notwithstanding. So it’s not surprising that we took to talk of “laser focus.” I can’t think of any precise noun equivalents from before 1980, except perhaps for “undivided attention,” but we had several closely related concepts, such as “bearing down,” “bound and determined,” “powers of concentration.” It suggests not only purpose but precision, not only concentrating effectively but concentrating on the right thing. “Laser focus” has also done spot duty as a verb for twenty years at least, though it is not used in the imperative, as “focus” by itself is.

The expression seems to have arisen in sportswriting, if you believe LexisNexis (in this case, I’m not sure I do); the first unmistakable instances popped up in articles about boxers in the late eighties (the laser industry trade magazine “Laser Focus” had been around for several years by then). As with “wonk,” Bill Clinton did not invent the expression but helped solidify it in the early nineties when he promised a “laser focus” on the economy. For all that, it does not seem to have become rife until after the turn of the millennium; I don’t recall hearing it until probably after 2010, though it might have crossed my path earlier.

The advent of the CD player, which was for most of us the first practical, everyday use of a laser, helped make this term possible. Lasers were exotic then (they’re still kind of exotic), but there one was in your own home, bringing your favorite tunes to life. There was a vague understanding in the air that a laser was the magical part of the new piece of equipment, much spookier and more advanced than a diamond stylus or magnetic tape. So lasers were ushered into the general consciousness, opening up room for a new figurative expression. A mere thirty years later, “laser-focused” was declared business jargon by Bloomberg News, and it is clearly a term businessmen have picked up, more than politicians, though it is available to anyone now.

We generally hear the term as praise, but calling someone “laser-focused” may just be a nice way of saying they are wearing blinders; that is, it may imply the wrong kind of workaholism or micromanagement. It’s one thing to pour your efforts into reaching a commendable goal, but obsession has its own risks even in the service of a noble cause. I would say the term generally continues to have a positive connotation, but it certainly can suggest something else: an unhealthy involvement in a single pursuit that leads to exclusion or isolation. We don’t hear that when a corporate spokesman boasts of a laser focus on customer service, but when an individual exercises laser focus, we may wonder.

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