A recent entry into the lexicon of trendy media-speak is the word optics. I don’t mean “optic” in the sense of “optic, adj., of the eye or sense of sight.” I don’t even mean “optics” (with an S) in the sense of “optics, n., the branch of physics dealing with the nature and properties of light and vision.”
I mean “optics” in this sense: Before moving ahead, we must consider the risks of this plan — I mean in terms of its optics.
Or this: The optics of a further bailout will not be good.
Or this: They first wanted to discuss how to handle the optics of layoffs.
Or this: Political opponents, however, called it ‘bad optics.’
This new optics is all about image and public relations; how something will “play,” politically; how something or someone will look to the outside world — shorthand, in other words, for public perception. Here, from the online Urban Dictionary, is a good working definition of this sense of optics:
“What something will look like to the outside world; the perception a public relations person would have on something. … The viewing lens of public perception. How the media will play a story. Political repercussions are all about optics. Bad optics would be giving the media or the political opposition a juicy story to play with.”
But you’d probably look in vain for this meaning in your dictionary. We could say that the meaning of optics has been co-opted. Or at least recycled.
How did optics become an overnight darling in the world of buzzwords? Like most “overnight” sensations, it was not overnight. I remember seeing the word used in this sense in political coverage as far back as the 1980s. And Ben Zimmer wrote in The New York Times magazine in 2010 of a Wall Street Journal piece in 1978 that included this quotation from Robert Strauss: “It would be a nice optical step.” To which, Zimmer added, the WSJ responded with the editorial line: “Optics will not cure inflation.”
The weirdest use I’ve heard so far of this new sense of “optics” came from a guest on a TV political panel. He concluded his remarks with this head-scratcher: “So those seem to be the optics, but the question is how those optics will appear to the public.”
What is this man saying?
I know. Stop beating your head on the wall. You’re right. He’s not saying anything. He only seems to be saying something: That seems to be the public perception, but the question is how that public perception will appear to the public.
Such bizarre permutations aside, what happened with optics is one way language changes, and it’s a privilege to see it in action. The danger for media writers, though, is the danger of all journalese and mimicry: It can become flat and opaque in a hurry. But media writers deal in words, so it’s no surprise that they tend to fall in love with new words. I recently heard a CNN political commentator use optics four times in just a few minutes. And when I was writing coach at The Dallas Morning News, I sent a message to the newsroom warning against some trendy piece of journalese, saying: GIVE IT A REST! And one of the summer interns said: “Wahhh, I didn’t have a chance to use it yet!”
That’s how a popular new word or expression — or an old one used a new way — can become not only an overnight phenom, but also an overnight cliché. Everyone wants to use it, so it gets worn out, stale and predictable, while it’s still in its infancy. That’s the reason clichés are so widely despised — they drain all the energy and freshness from a message that might otherwise sparkle.
So when optics gets old — and as far as I can tell, it’s already approaching its dotage — it’s best to leave it on the shelf and opt for something simple and unstrained and less hackneyed, something plainspoken that has no pretensions and has aged well. “Public perception,” say. Don’t you like how that sounds? Public perception. So clear, so meaningful, so … new.