I found the word “laser-focused on the bottom line” in the following sentence of the New York Times (August 6) op ed titled, “Dream, Baby, Dream!”

“We also know – look at Syria – dictators who have spent decades ruling through fear do not go quietly into the night any more than great powers readily abandon their profitable dominions. And I thought these finance guys were hard-nosed realists laser-focused on the bottom line.

Dream on, Mitt, dream on! Even if your dreams, to use that word you let drop on the Olympics in London and then scrambled to retract, are “disconcerting.”

I think laser-focused simply means “pinpointed” or “sharply focused.” It doesn’t seem to be any foreign word to me. However, curiously enough, this apparently easy-to-relate word is not found in any of Oxford, Cambridge, and Merriam-Webster online dictionary, or in Ngram inventory.

Other online vocabulary site e.g. www.wordnik.com says 'laser-focused' hasn't been added to any lists yet.

But I found the catch phrase, “Wal-Mart ‘gets laser-focused’ on lowest prices again” in DailyFinance.

Is laser-focused a received English word, or a business jargon, or just an up-and-coming word?

3 Answers 3


I used Google books to see if I could figure out how quickly this phrase is catching on, and how long it's been in widespread use. That's difficult to ascertain, because a great majority of the time, “laser focused” is found in a scientific journal, and is referring to, well, focused lasers – i.e., stuff like this:

A 50-mW laser focused into a cell with a 10-cm focal length lens is no more effective than a 5-mW laser focused with a 1-cm focal length lens.

By the year 2005, though, metaphorical use the phrase crops up more and more; I'd venture a guess that, by that time, using laser-focused to describe someone's mind or concentration was no longer novel or uncommon. As you might imagine, the phrase shows up quite a few times in the very unscientific 2006 book Focus Like a Laser Beam: 10 Ways to Do What Matters Most; a blogger headlined a 2009 entry with Steve Jobs Is Laser Focused on the Apple Tablet.

The earliest entry I could find to this more metaphorical usage of the term was in a 1995 book called The Kennedy Women by Laurence Leamer:

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(I'm not insisting that's the first use of the term, I'm just saying that's the earliest one I could find, after spending 10 minutes or so leafing through the search results. Nonetheless, it's interesting how Leamer chose to hyphenate the two-word term, but, fourteen years later, the blogger did not. That fits what some have said in other ELU threads: early uses of a newly-coined phrase are often hyphenated, while that hyphen tends to get dropped as the usage becomes more widespread.)

My final answer? Ten years ago, I might have said that laser-focused was an up-and-coming word, but today, I think it's more deeply rooted and firmly established.

  • I wish I could give such an elaborate, thorough and valuable input one day to the question I think I can cover, but never will be able to. Commented Aug 8, 2012 at 20:47
  • As background, the metaphor has gone back further in time. For example, this journal from 1977 has "laser-like focus".
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 14:22

Whether or not it's in common usage (it is), it's a phrase. :P I've been seeing this for years, so I'd assert quite strongly that this is in common usage.

HOWEVER, the science pedant in me insists on pointing out that lasers are not, in fact, focused! Focusing electromagnetic signals works by taking divergent information and bouncing or curving it so that it converges, strengthening or sharpening the signal. Lasers don't really have divergent information - all of the photons are emitted with the same direction and wavelength.

Focusing white light versus "focusing" a laser would be a bit like trying to funnel a splash versus trying to funnel water from a water gun. One will be focused by the lens/funnel, one comes out already focused.

Focusing light is a process. A laser's direction exists as a constant state of being.

In most day-to-day life, you're going to encounter unfocused lasers. These lasers are created cohesive and need no focusing. In some applications, there are lasers that are focused. These tend to be pretty rad applications like weapons, surgical tools, and physics labs.

Thank you J.R. for the correction.

  • 1
    Even worse it's impossible to focus coherent (laser) light as well as you can focus incoherent light. To focus a laser to a very small spot you need to go to a lot of effort to de-laser the laser!
    – mgb
    Commented Aug 8, 2012 at 3:24
  • 1
    Although, technically, there's minor diffraction due to impure media, but you're probably not going to be able to fix that with a lens.
    – rsegal
    Commented Aug 8, 2012 at 3:27
  • if you can make a simple solid-state laser de-speckler lots of people would like to talk to you ;-)
    – mgb
    Commented Aug 8, 2012 at 3:31
  • 2
    My initial reaction was that this came from the use of laser pointers in corporate meetings and such. Commented Aug 8, 2012 at 5:27
  • 1
    While some applications have non-focused lasers (laser pointers, laser light shows), many other lasers are focused (laser weapons, surgical lasers, manufacturing lasers, CD player lasers). It depends on how the laser is constructed, and its purpose. Many would take exception to the pedantic assertion that "lasers are not focused."
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 8, 2012 at 18:54

It is an example of "a turn of phrase". A descriptive phrase to provide an alternate or more expressive way to say something.

Granted for the anal or pedantic, lasers are made up of parallel light waves so can't technically be focused. But to most of us it refers to concentrated light turned on to a normally very small spot.

  • 1
    Give a reason for the down vote. This answer is correct and is merely stating a simple truth. Commented Aug 8, 2012 at 6:45
  • I appreciate your answer and think worth for upvote. Commented Aug 8, 2012 at 7:33
  • 1
    It wasn't my downvote, but lasers can be - and often are - focused. But the O.P. was inquiring about English, not science, and I agree that laser-focused can be a turn of phrase.
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 8, 2012 at 19:27

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