I saw the word, “optics” in two different articles of NYT and Washington Post:

As Mueller builds his Russia special counsel team, every hire is under scrutiny

While many experts see no major issues, others say the optical problem could undermine public confidence in the probe. -

Aides’ Biggest Worry on Trump’s Europe Trip: A Meeting With Putin

The air of uncertainty about the meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is only heightened by President Trump’s tendency for unpredictable utterances and awkward optics.

As I was unfamiliar with the word ‘optics’ used in a ‘political’ connotation, I checked OED and CED online, and found out:

Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘optics’ as:

(North Ame.) Typically in a political context) the way in which an event or course of action is perceived by the public.

Cambridge English Dictionary defines ‘optics’ as;
The public opinion and understanding of a situation after seeing it as the media shows it and the possible political effect of this.

It seems ‘optics’ means public impression or understanding of a specific political action / situation. But I have difficulty in reconciling the above usage, “the optical problem could undermine public confidence” and “(President’s) awkward optics,” with the definitions of both OED and CED, because the former sounds like Russia special counsel team members’ optics and the latter Mr. Trump’s optics as against “public optics.”

I hope my point get through to you. What are the alternative short word(s) to “optics” used in the above examples?


4 Answers 4


What do optics have to do with what's optical?

Appearances or first impressions.

Optics means how things look to an outsider. If I want to maintain the impression that I am still rich after losing my money, I 'keep up appearances' in public by showing off and spending money as before.

In politics, many people live their daily lives under the constant eye of the public. What they do is judged harshly, not by their actions but by the first impression their actions make...to the eye.

Optics -- plural in form but singular in construction: the aspects of an action, policy, or decision (as in politics or business) that relate to public perceptions.

  • … when a broken-down bailout recipient like Citigroup tries to pay its top executives gigantic bonuses or to acquire a new private jet, it has failed to reconsider the optics. — Nick Paumgarten
  • Skilling said Baxter “was concerned about the optics of the conflict, but not about the ethics or propriety of the transactions,“ according to interview memos. — Peter Behr and April Witt

Merriam-Webster Dictionary, online definition

Why does a word like optics take off when we already had appearances? Like utilization seems to say more than use, a word becomes fashionable, people jump on the bandwagon, and the word takes hold.


The other answers have done a thorough job explaining the meaning of "optics" in this sense. As a supplement, The New York Times wrote an explainer on this topic in 2010. "How did optics achieve buzzword status in American politics?" the article asks.

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.

Notably, OED's earliest citation of the term antedates the reference in the Times:

1973 Boston Globe (Nexis) 11 May 14 I knew the optics of the situation look bad, but I kept after Bob Kuschner about the suit.

Why use the word "optics" as opposed to simply "appearances?" The Times article has a speculative suggestion:

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.

So to answer the question directly, "optics" in the political context could be replaced with "appearances," but has caught on in the political media for its technical sound and colorful flavor

  • 1
    I take yours an examplary clearcut answer suported with appropreate / quotes / facts. Thank you. Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 2:47

Optics is a metaphor for how something is perceived - how it is seen or how it looks, where see and look are just other metaphors in the same vein as optics is.

Once a one-word metaphor comes into general use, people tend to consider all variations of the original word (optic in this case) to be justifiably usable. So optics (noun, as in awkward optics or awkward perception) begets optical (adjective, as in optical problem or a problem of perception).

We might say something doesn't look good. A politician's associates and detractors will all say it was bad optics.

You might consider bad optics or good optics in this sense to be a reflections of someone's inability to recognize how their actions will look. I don't see a problem, because I'm not a politician. But if I were a politician, I would have to examine the optics to see that they are bad.


My observation: 'Optics', I believe, has also come to mean 'personal promotional appearances' - as in

This woman ... propped up her black mom for optics

[@TheFabBookLover, twitter/x, 4.9.23].

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