Here’s an example from RealClearPolitics:

But the optics bode well for a party whose chances of winning the White House depend on attracting many more Hispanic voters than it did four years ago.¹ [emphasis added]

  • American heritage says "(used with a pl. verb) Informal The way a situation or action appears to the general public: Voters were put off by the optics of the candidate's financial dealings.", and this example might be a better example of the usage. In your example, I first thought it was a euphemism for presentation slides or glasses (spectacles). I’ve never heard it used this way and wonder if it might be AmE (I use BrE). – Pam Oct 3 '18 at 14:54

It means appearances, or “how a political situation appears to the public”. Macmillan Dictionary has been following the development of this new metaphor. Their gloss of the word’s history claims that the first political use was during the US presidency of Jimmy Carter, but that it became popular more recently in the context of the Libyan conflict.¹

|improve this answer|||||
  • 2
    Well and concisely answered. – Marc Cenedella Sep 4 '12 at 6:48

According to the following extract from Macmillan Dictionary, the metaphoric usage of optics dates back to the late '70s:

  • Metaphorical expansion of optics into political and other arenas in fact dates back to the late 1970s, when it was used in the context of US President Jimmy Carter's anti-inflation policy. Interestingly, at the time, the metaphor also extended to the related adjective optical, with for example a particular course of action being described as a 'nice optical step'.

  • Though metaphorical use of the adjective never really took off, the noun gained a foothold in political commentary throughout the 1980s, especially in Canadian English.

  • Today it is still far more prevalent in Canadian and US English, though the current Libya conflict has led to more exposure in Britain. Optics has also gained currency in Irish English, often in the context of the country's recent economic difficulties.

In the following article from The New York Times they add further details about its usage and origin:

  • In his final On Language column last September (2009) , 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.”

|improve this answer|||||

The OED’s definition 2c of the singular optic as a noun is ‘A particular way of interpreting or experiencing something; a viewpoint, a perspective.’ The earliest citation in this sense is dated 1958.

|improve this answer|||||

Maybe the origin lies in an other language. The use you describe is widely used in the German language. There you speak of a "schiefe Optik" - an 'awry optics' if a political process is dubious with respect to legal or moral standards.

|improve this answer|||||
  • interesting! There might have been a path from "shiefe Optik" => optics the way we use it now in English! :) – Paul Amerigo Pajo Apr 20 '13 at 6:56

Whether it was a misuse by Jimmy Carter that just caught on. It still seems like an imprecise substitute for "appearance", "impression", or "perception". Until recently "optics" was specifically a term of physics referring to the properties and behavior of light. It was a scientific term that had no relevance to social interaction. While its use has expanded, the new use has thus far been relegated to the realm of political journalists.

|improve this answer|||||
  • Please do not post comments as answers. Each answer that you post in an answer box is expected to stand alone as an answer to the question. If you wish to comment you must earn the privilege. – MetaEd Sep 2 '16 at 15:37
  • The Macmillan Dictionary discussion of optics cited in MetaEd's answer begins with a 2011 citation from the Sunday Business Post (Ireland) that uses the term in a business context: 'Keith McCormack, head of business tourism at Fáilte Ireland, said that buyers had "become adept at driving down costs". "There are still concerns around the optics of corporate meetings [abroad] and the trend continues to be to avoid lavishness and frills."' The term has long since ceased to be exclusively political jargon. – Sven Yargs Sep 2 '16 at 18:01

Optics is a scientific word regarding the dynamics of light and its use for purposes other than that is slang. Further, the use of the word optics in political contexts has the appearance of unintelligent rhetorical due to unnecessary ambiguity.

|improve this answer|||||
  • Slang is mainly oral and used only in the most informal of situations. At one time this word might have been slang. But now it is an accepted term in respected print journals. The characterization does not fit. – MetaEd Nov 7 '17 at 18:21

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.