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Optics: Shedding Light On What We Shouldn't See

Trends in media-speak come and go. Commentator Paula LaRocque's ready to say goodbye to one in particular.

A recent entry in trendy media-speak is the word optics.  I don’t mean “optic”—to pertain to the eye or sense of sight.  And I don’t mean the plural “optics”—to pertain to the nature and properties of light and vision.

A handful of quotations from print and broadcast media show us the kind of optics I mean. 

Here’s one:  We must consider the risks of this plan—I mean in terms of its optics.

Here’s another: The optics of a further bailout will be unfortunate.

And another: They wanted first to discuss how to handle the optics.

And yet another: Opponents, however, called it ‘bad optics.’

This sense of optics is all about image and public relations, how something will “play” politically, or how it will look.  It’s shorthand for public perception. Here’s a good working definition from the online Urban Dictionary:

“OPTICS: What something will look like to the outside world; the perception a public relations person would have on something . . . how the media will play a story.”

We’d probably look in vain for this particular meaning in our usual dictionaries, however.

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, like other trendy expressions, it can be overused to the point where we don’t know what it means.

The most bewildering use I’ve heard of this new sense of “optics” came from a television news show.  A reporter made this statement: “Those are the optics, but the question is how those optics will look to the public.”

What is this man saying?

I know. It’s a head-scratcher.  But in fact, he’s not saying anything. He only seems to be saying something.  Here’s how his statement translates: That’s the public perception, but the question is how that public perception will be perceived by the public.

Weirdness aside, what happened with optics shows how language can change, and it’s fun to watch it in action.

As I said, overuse is a problem—I heard a CNN commentator use optics four times in just a few minutes.  And that’s how a popular new expression can become not only an overnight phenomenon, but also an overnight cliché. Everyone wants to use the new word, so it gets worn and stale while still in its infancy.  That’s one reason clichés are despised—they drain energy and freshness from our words.

So when optics gets tired—and that may be soon—it’s best to leave it on the shelf and choose something simple and unstrained, something plainspoken that has aged well.  Let’s see, something like “public perception,” maybe.  Don’t you like how that sounds?  Public perception.  So clear, so meaningful, so . . . new.

Paula LaRocque is the author of several books on writing and of a novel titled "Chalk Line."