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Optics and politics

Ben Zimmer/NY Times

7 March 2010

The New York Times

Sunday, March 7, 2010

On Language

by Ben Zimmer

When President Obama responded to the failed Christmas airliner bombing while on vacation in his native state of Hawaii, some Republicans claimed it was “bad optics.” “Hawaii to many Americans seems like a foreign place,” the Republican strategist Kevin Madden told CNN. “And I think those images, the optics, hurt President Obama very badly.”

A month later, the shoe was on the other foot when the Republican National Committee held its winter meeting in, yes, Hawaii. Then it was the party’s chairman, Michael Steele, who had to answer questions about the “optics” of gathering the party faithful at a beachfront resort in Waikiki.

How did optics achieve buzzword status in American politics? In his final On Language column last September, William Safire noted the trend: “ ‘Optics’ is hot, rivaling content.” When politicians fret about the public perception of a decision more than the substance of the decision itself, we’re living in a world of optics. Of course, elected officials have worried about outward appearances since time immemorial, but optics puts a new spin on things, giving a scientific-sounding gloss to P.R. and image-making.

Though the metaphorical expansion of optics into the political arena feels novel, it has actually been brewing for a few decades. On May 31, 1978, The Wall Street Journal quoted Jimmy Carter’s special counselor on inflation, Robert Strauss, as saying that business leaders who went along with Carter’s anti-inflation measures might be invited to the White House as a token of appreciation. “It would be a nice optical step,” Strauss said. The Journal was not impressed by the idea: the following day, an editorial rebuffed Strauss’s overtures with the line “Optics will not cure inflation.”

Over the course of the 1980s, optics gained a foothold in political discussions — not in the United States but in Canada. An April 7, 1983, Toronto Globe and Mail article headlined “Optics Is Name of Game” explained: “They say in Larry Grossman’s health ministry, it’s all a matter of optics. This has nothing to do with the eyes, but it has everything to do with the way the public sees things.” In 1986, The Globe and Mail reported that “Industry minister Hugh O’Neil showed up to get the premier’s ‘guidance’ on how to handle the political ‘optics’ of a series of massive layoffs at Algoma Steel.” And in Greg Weston’s book “Reign of Error,” about John Turner’s brief stint as prime minister in 1984, Senator Keith Davey of Canada is quoted as declining an offer to run Turner’s campaign with the excuse, “the optics would be all wrong.”

Even now, optics in the sense of political appearances is far more prevalent in Canada than stateside. I asked Stefan Dollinger, a lexicographer at the University of British Columbia who is leading a revision of the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, why this might be. Dollinger pointed out that bilingual Canadians would be familiar with a similar French term, optique. In standard French, optique can refer to the science of optics or it can mean “perspective, point of view.” Beyond those core meanings, optique has been extended to visual appearances in general (much like the German equivalent Optik). Canadian-French usage adds a more politically focused angle, which seems to have been imported across the bilingual divide.


The interplay of English optics and French optique on Canada’s political scene has long fascinated Beryl Wajsman, president of the Montreal-based Institute for Public Affairs and editor of The Suburban, Quebec’s largest English-language weekly. “The ‘optique,’ as it is called in very politically savvy Quebec, is everything,” he wrote in a 2007 column for Canada Free Press. Wajsman told me that optics and optique may have first commingled in Montreal around the time of the 1980 referendum on Quebec’s sovereignty. Independence for the province was voted down, with the “No” side bolstered by a stirring speech from Pierre Trudeau at Montreal’s Paul Sauvé Arena just days before the referendum. Trudeau’s bold intervention, Wajsman recalls, created some powerful optics.


Not long after Canadian political insiders got caught up in optics, some American business leaders began finding the term useful, too. In a December 1985 Wall Street Journal profile, the Allied Signal executive Michael D. Dingman dismissed speculation over clashes with his company’s C.E.O. as “a matter of ‘optics,’ a word he uses frequently to mean ‘perception.’ ” Then in May 1987, the Ohio Edison Company president Justin T. Rogers Jr. defended the construction of more electrical power plants by saying: “Optically, we’ve got all the energy we want in this country. Energy policies are being set today more on the optics of the situation than they are on the realities.”


Were these corporate titans influenced by political goings-on north of the border? Possibly, but the fact that optics showed up in relation to Carter’s inflation czar back in 1978 shows that this wasn’t an entirely Canadian invention. Rather, as is the case with so many buzzwords, we most likely can’t trace a tidy linear path from a single original source to subsequent adopters.


Optics has many sources of appeal: for bilingual Canadians it resonates with optique; for monolingual Americans it brings to mind a panoply of other associations. As Jan Freeman wrote in The Boston Globe, the word “invokes a whole set of tech-and-science terms like ‘physics,’ ‘statistics’ and ‘tectonics,’ as well as Greek-derived high-concept nouns like ‘hermeneutics,’ ‘aesthetics’ and ‘pragmatics,’ all with an aura of brainy precision.” Fittingly enough, the beauty of optics is in the eye of the beholder.


Ben Zimmer is executive producer of visualthesaurus.com.



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