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optics

noun [uncountable]

the way a situation looks to the general public

'Keith McCormack, head of business tourism at Fáilte Ireland, said that buyers had "become adept at driving down costs". "There are still concerns around the optics of corporate meetings [abroad] and the trend continues to be to avoid lavishness and frills."'

Sunday Business Post, Ireland 3rd April 2011

'A scenario in which NATO starts bombing the very forces they previously helped would have "bad optics", as they say in Washington.'

The Economist 1st April 2011

Look up the word optics in a dictionary, and you're likely to see a definition along the lines of 'the scientific study of light and vision'. You wouldn't routinely expect optics to pop up in the text of popular media, not unless the topic under discussion was specifically connected to that particular branch of science. However in recent weeks all that seems to have changed, as journalistic English appears to have cottoned on to a figurative use of the word which, though not entirely new, was previously pretty obscure.

this trendy new metaphor's journey into popular use has been kick-started by the current conflict in Libya

If writers refer to 'the optics of a situation' they are talking about the way a situation is perceived by the general public; how an event, course of action, etc. 'looks' to others. This trendy new metaphor's journey into popular use has been kick-started by the current conflict in Libya, as for example illustrated by this recent quote from Canada's Toronto Star: 'U.S. President Barack Obama temporized for weeks, worrying about the optics of waging war in another Arab state after the Iraq fiasco.' (19th March 2011). In other words, Obama was concerned about how a decision to become involved in the Libyan conflict would be perceived by the man on the street, especially in the wake of the country's arguably misguided involvement in the 2004 invasion of Iraq.

Though military debate has brought optics into the spotlight, figurative use of the word is not confined to this domain, as the first citation at the beginning of this article shows. Politics is however, predictably, the most common context of use (after all, who could be more worried about 'how things look' than a politician). The word is becoming a popular euphemism for referring to the 'impression' that a particular decision or course of action gives to the people who, in an ideal world, you would prefer to 'keep on your side'. In a nutshell, the use of optics characterizes a situation in which a person or organization worries about the public perception of a decision more than the substance of the decision itself.

Background – optics

Metaphorical expansion of optics into political and other arenas in fact dates back to the late 1970s, when it was used in the context of US President Jimmy Carter's anti-inflation policy. Interestingly, at the time, the metaphor also extended to the related adjective optical, with for example a particular course of action being described as a 'nice optical step'. Though metaphorical use of the adjective never really took off, the noun gained a foothold in political commentary throughout the 1980s, especially in Canadian English. Today it is still far more prevalent in Canadian and US English, though the current Libya conflict has led to more exposure in Britain. Optics has also gained currency in Irish English, often in the context of the country's recent economic difficulties.

In this metaphorical sense, optics mainly manifests itself in two ways – either as a modified noun phrase, i.e. good/bad optics etc, or more commonly in the construction the optics of + noun/gerund, so e.g. the optics of the agreement/moves/deal, the optics of changing interest rates, etc.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 18th April 2011.

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