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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: Enron


(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.


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smartest guy in the room

(1990’s | journalese (politics) | “know-it-all,” “show-off,” “genius,” “best and brightest”)

A top-down phrase, “smartest guy (or person) in the room” has from the beginning been applied to powerful politicians by powerful journalists. This expression has been foisted on us by our overlords, and we have accepted it placidly. Yet the phrase seems to have derived significant momentum from the film “Broadcast News” (1987), in which a sarcastic boss asks a stubborn young reporter (played by Holly Hunter) if it’s nice to always think you’re the smartest person in the room. She replies, “It’s awful.” (True enough. The eminent poet and critic John Hollander liked to point out that one of the drawbacks of being intelligent is having to put up with all the blockheads.) This line from the film was quoted by Vincent Canby of the New York Times and by reviewers for the Washington Post and the Associated Press. Even there, a boost from some powerful journalists, or at least journals. Political reporters Helen Thomas and Mary McGrory both used it early on. Broadcast News aside, the phrase didn’t turn up regularly outside of political contexts until the mid-1990’s. Based on my own ear and LexisNexis, “guy” seems to have won out as the most frequently used noun some time after 2000 (“person,” “one,” and “man” are other possibilities, in descending order of frequency). “Guy” in the singular still normally refers to a man, although in the plural it can apply to a group of women, at least among the younger set.

Aside from the question of whether “guy” or “person” sounds more idiomatic, the principal question about this expression has to do with how much self-awareness goes with it. Does the smartest guy in the room have to be aware of his superiority? Further, does he have to ensure that everyone else is aware of it, too? Inherently, there is no reason the SGITR couldn’t be humble and self-effacing, and the phrase is used that way on occasion. Sometimes the SGITR is credited with being a good listener who makes a point of finding out what others have to contribute rather than simply talking over everyone else. And sometimes you will see sentences like, “He’s the smartest guy in the room, and he makes sure everyone else knows it,” a construction that implies the phrase still is neutral. But usually when someone is hailed as the smartest guy in the room, it is assumed that he will make sure that his audience recognizes his intelligence, at length and at high volume. Through use, the expression has picked up baggage: arrogance, vehemence, petulance. It is still possible to use the phrase without the accretions, but it doesn’t happen that often any more.

When aggressive, self-promoting, intelligent people look foolish, this phrase will pop up every time — it has a lot in common with the old idea of being too smart for one’s own good. The first use of “smartest guy in the room” I found it in LexisNexis (1985) applied to David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director, who notoriously led the charge for the administration’s tax and (non-war-related) spending cuts, only later to admit that the economic theory — tax cuts lead to greater revenue; spending cuts lead to economic growth driven by the private sector — behind them was completely fabricated. I hoped to discover that Henry Kissinger was the first mucky-muck to whom this term was applied, way back when he was running the world in the early 1970’s, but in fact, Robert MacNamara, whose job it was to louse up the world before Henry Kissinger came on the scene, would have been a better guess. Richard C. Holbrooke, then a young diplomat, used “smartest man in the room” in an essay for Harper’s magazine in 1975. He didn’t apply the phrase to MacNamara explicitly, but it was clear that he could have if he felt like it. The cases of Stockman or MacNamara or the Enron criminals, and those of countless other SGITR’s, reveal that even when the smartest guy in the room is by general consent the most intelligent (smart means intelligent, and then some — quick-witted, ready to speak up, a little sassy) person working on the problem at hand, he can screw up at least as royally as the dumbest, and probably more. Holbrooke: “The smartest man in the room is not always right.” Human intelligence is fragile and unreliable, prone to all kinds of blind spots and dubious assumptions that slither out from under you when you need them most. Sometimes, giving the smartest guy in the room a free hand is the smartest move you can make. But you’d better keep a sharp eye on him. Don’t let him ruin the show.

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