language and words in the news

Optical illusions

As a recent article in Britain’s Guardian newspaper noted, wars always give rise to new words, and the current conflict in Libya is no exception. The fashionable term of the moment is optics. Military experts and armchair generals come on the air to talk about the optics of the situation – by which they mean ‘how it looks’ to ordinary people. The optics – or public perception – of an event may be influenced by factors which, rationally speaking, have no real bearing on it. Thus, politicians express anxiety about:

the emotional optics of cruise missiles raining down, backed by coalition briefings [which have] unwelcome echoes of Iraq

This isn’t a new usage, nor is it restricted to the discourse of war. In fact, the Guardian traces it back as far as 1978, when it was used in the context of President Carter’s economic policy. More recently, a Canadian paper ran a story about a local council voting, last Deecember, to defer a proposed pay rise for councillors. Explaining the reasons for this:

Goldring said he didn’t like the optics of a new council voting on pay hikes for themselves less than a month after officially taking office.

To put it in more familiar terms: however justified the move, ‘it just wouldn’t look good’. It will be interesting to see how long this expression stays around before it is avoided as a cliché.

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Michael Rundell

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