12

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]

1
  • 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
    Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 14:54

5 Answers 5

17

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

1
  • 2
    Well and concisely answered. Commented Sep 4, 2012 at 6:48
9

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.”

8

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. Frequently in contexts dealing with French literature, critical theory, etc.

1958 French Rev. 31 386 Schehadé's optic resembles that of Giraudoux insofar as both dramatists tend to see life through the eyes of innocence.

1972 R. T. Denommé French Parnassian Poets iv. 79 De Lisle attempts to reverse the procedure by requesting that his readers adjust their nineteenth-century optic to the superior cultural values of the Ancients.

5

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.

1
  • interesting! There might have been a path from "shiefe Optik" => optics the way we use it now in English! :) Commented Apr 20, 2013 at 6:56
1

I thought this usage of optics was a recent one, but just read a Mark Twain short story, “A Dog’s Tale,” which seems to use the word in this same sense. Written in the 1800’s! A Dog's Tale:

They disputed and disputed, and I was the very center of subject of it all, and I wished my mother could know that this grand honor had come to me; it would have made her proud.

Then they discussed optics, as they called it, and whether a certain injury to the brain would produce blindness or not, but they could not agree about it, and said they must test it by experiment by and by; and next they discussed plants, and that interested me, because in the summer Sadie and I had planted seeds—I helped her dig the holes, you know—and after days and days a little shrub or a flower came up there, and it was a wonder how that could happen; but it did, and I wished I could talk—I would have told those people about it and shown then how much I knew, and been all alive with the subject; but I didn't care for the optics; it was dull, and when they came back to it again it bored me, and I went to sleep.

2
  • 2
    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 21:41
  • 1
    This does not address the question which is about the use of "optics" in political commentary.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 22:31

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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