On Optics (channeling Safire)

William Safire recently died. Even though I disagreed with most of his political opinions, I loved and will miss his columns, especially "On Language". So I want to note his passing here, with my own little post on language. Now of course I don't aspire to be as entertaining or educational as him... so I'll just rant about something I find annoying.

Politicians and journalists in the US have started using the word "optics" when they mean "perception" or "appearance" . E.g. instead of "this looks bad" they say "the optics of this are not good"..... urgh! Extremely annoying fad! Here are two quick examples I just found using my favorite search engine. The first one is from a politician in 2008:

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa [...] said that terrorists would dance in the streets if Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, is elected president [...] because Obama's middle name is "Hussein," his father's Muslim roots, and his appearance -- or "optics," as King put it. "I'll just say this that when you think about the optics of a Barack Obama potentially getting elected President of the United States -- and I mean, what does this look like to the rest of the world? What does it look like to the world of Islam? "

Well Mr. Congressman, the optics of this are that you are a pretentious buffoon who thinks that borrowing scientific sounding words makes you look smart. (Oh and it seems you are also a bigot... but that's off-topic here.) The second one is a more recent example from an actual writer this time:

"In response to the leak, the White House kicks into high damage-control mode [...], but even here shows some clumsiness, at least regarding civil-military optics: the 25 hours for the Olympics vs. 25 minutes for McChrystal optic..."

The "McChrystal optic"? To me those two words invoke a beam of light going through a solid material whose constituent atoms are arranged an orderly repeating pattern. Which of course has nothing to do with what (I think) the writer meant to communicate -- something about Gen. McChrystal and perceptions. The faddish metaphor failed, the sentence is ugly and borderline incomprehensible. Way to go, Mr. Professional Writer.

I think this usage of "optics" right now, in 2009, is just at the point where it's perfect indicator of a certain kind of pomposity. Normal people haven't started using it (and hopefully never will), but it seems to be trendy with hacks who either can't come up with better metaphors or fear that simple words would expose their paucity of meaning. Am I being to harsh ? OK, let's give that last writer the benefit of the doubt, and see what else he's written... in an even more recent post, the following:

"President Obama and his advisors seem to be wrestling with this fundamental issue in Afghanistan and the optics and the body language...."

Bingo! Optics and body language.... just horrible isn't it?

It's not that I am just a cranky conservative when it comes to language -- far from it, I love its constant evolution -- slang, jargon, lingo.. it's all great! But that doesn't mean that all neologisms are good. It doesn't mean that "any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes", to quote George Orwell. For a new word, usage, phrase, or expression to work, for it to be cool, in any language "what is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around."

R.I.P. William Safire


  1. What a coincidence! In his last column which I hadn't read until now, Safire comments on "optics".

  2. sounds like optics is another word for BS

    that was my original reaction to reading this post what it really means is that people have wildly different viewpoints and by using this word you are trying to sugarcoat the fact that they might actually totally disagree with you

    thanks for deconstructing this very insidious term