“Optics” Is in the Eye of the Beholder

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How does optics—employed as a buzzword synonym for perception, not a reference to the study of light and sight—look to you? What’s your view? Do we see eye to eye? This post discusses a not-new but newly trending term whose increasing popularity says something about the way we see ourselves and our culture—and institutions that significantly influence the way we live.

Optics ultimately derives from the Greek word optikos, meaning “pertaining to sight,” which in turn comes from optos, meaning “seen” or “visible,” and, as mentioned above, refers to the science of light (and therefore of sight), but it has acquired an additional sense—and, if you are familiar with the word, not as recently as you might think.

The use of optics as shorthand for “the way things look” seems to have spiked in usage, but it dates back several decades, from a government official’s comment that a gesture of appreciation would be “a nice optical step”—that is, it would look good and reflect well on the person making the gesture. A newspaper editorial, in response, criticized the fact that “optics”—doing something to make a good impression—would not resolve an underlying problem that the gesture seemed to attempt to obscure.

Ever since then, optics has served as a substitute for perception, especially in politics and business, which are all about perception. Until recently, the term was more common in Canada than in the United States, perhaps thanks to the influence of the equivalent French term optique in the bilingual nation. (German has the similar word Optik.)

But as our society has increasingly come to value show over substance, the word is becoming more prevalent south of the border. Businesspeople and politicians alike often express concern about how an action will appear, at the expense of focus on actual ramifications. “What are the optics?” they ask each other. Whether customers and constituents improve their own eyesight will determine the future of this jarring jargon.

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15 thoughts on ““Optics” Is in the Eye of the Beholder”

  1. The use of the word “optics” to mean “perception” or “appearance” is EXTREMELY STUPID. I am being very blunt on this on purpose.
    “Optics” is a science, a technology, and a form of engineering. This dates all the way back to the book by Sir Isaac Newton, OPTIKS, if not earlier. Just because people are ignorant of science, technology, and engineering is no excuse to abuse the language of such subjects. Also, being Canadian and trying to blame it on French speakers is no excuse, either. Leave the Franco-Canadians alone about this!

    In the recent decades, the technology of optics has branched out into the area of “electrooptics” (or electro-optics). This is a combination of the optical technology of mirrors, lenses, prisms, lasers, and optical crystals – with electrical and electronic technology. There are whole factories devoted to such things in Southern California, Texas, Colorado, and New York, and there might even be such things in Switzerland, Scotland, Russia, Japan, Germany, France, the Republic of China, Canada, Austria, and Australia.

    When someone asks a question such as “How good are the optics in this camera?”, this is a reference to the quality of its lenses, mirrors, prisms, electrooptics, and its optical detectors, such as CCDs (charge-coupled devices).

    Electrooptics and optics are very important subfields in astronomy, aviation, biomedical apps, communications, chemistry, defense, electronics engineering, geology, mechanical engineering, physics, space exploration, and surveying.

    “Optics” used to refer to the science & technology of visible light. Nowadays, “optics” has been generalized to infrared optics, ultraviolet optics, and X-ray optics. There might even be electron optics (such as in electron microscopes) and gamma-ray optics. I have even seen some pictures that were made with neutrons.

    Hence, the answer to “When is optics in the eye of the beholder?” might be “When it is infrared optics, ultraviolet optics, X-ray optics, or nuclear optics!”
    Else, “optics in the eye of the beholder” might be only “optical optics” – because all of the other kinds use artificial detectors.

  2. “Optics in the eye of the beholder” being only “optical optics” (the optics of visual light) makes more and more sense, the longer that I thing about it. All of the other kinds of optics use artificial detectors, such as special photographic films, fluorescent chemicals, electro-optical detectors of various kinds, semiconductor detectors, electro-optical crystals,…
    One of the very first such detectors was a simple thermometer, and this was used to discover infrared waves (“infrared light”).
    Fluorescent chemicals were used to discover ultraviolet waves (“ultraviolet light”).

  3. I’m with Dale on this one. I have never encountered this use of the word optics, and I think I’m better off for not having known it.
    Scopes and cameras have optics. Superficial gestures shouldn’t.

  4. Perhaps from being around politics, I am very familiar with “optics” being used in this way but equally aware that it is a slang, non-standard way of using the word. So I have no quarrel with it, SO LONG AS it is understood that it is those 2 things: slang, not formal English; and non-standard, meaning it is not acceptable in any formal or serious context because it does not mean what it is being employed to mean. And right now, it doesn’t meet that criterion. But before I get too overheated over this one, I have to first get people to stop talking about one, discreet fact or piece of statistical information as ” a statistic”, and–even harder– get modern inhabitants of Great Britain to stop referring to themselves as “Britons”. Those 2 (especially the former) drive me too crazy to have any craze left for the optics of a bill-signing or standing in front of a flag.

  5. I call people from Great Britain “Britons”. What could be more natural?
    It is like calling Mexicans “Mexicans” and Argentineans “Argentineans” (and not “Argentines”).
    For a long time the practice in the U.S.A. to call all British people “English”. (The English are attacking! The English have set fire to Washington!) George III was the “King of England”, and Elizabeth II is still the “Queen of England”. Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle are still the homes of the English monarch.
    All of this is despite this fact: The worst of the atrocities committed against the Americans in Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia were on the orders of an Irish colonel named O’Hara. He was a loyal servant of George III in the English Army.

  6. The Britons were a fairly specific Celtic group or tribe who met the Romans in the BCs. Not at all related to the English the Scottish or probably most of the Welsh. How is calling inhabitants of Britain Britons “natural” in the least? I can’t even think of an analogous example. Britain does not end with a vowel. People from Sweden or Denmark are not called Swedons or Denmorks. Those from New Zealand are New Zealanders, not New Zealons. (And people from Argentina are actually called Argentines or Argentinians, not “Argentineans” but that is different problem.) More to the point, there aren’t completely different historical peoples called Mexicans or Argentines to unnecessarily confuse things. The term Britisher– which is very English– has been around a long time, is perfectly good and elevated by its accuracy; even though it sounds kind of lumpish. Even formalizing Brit– which some sources have, apparently– is preferable and makes more sense. Dane/Danish, Swede/Swedish, Brit/British. The Germans call them Brites; you of all people should love that.

  7. Having worked in politics for the previous 12 years, I have NEVER encountered this word in this sense.

  8. Was it in the US? I don’t know about other places, but here I find that hard to believe. You even hear it on the news.

  9. Or, not, I guess. The Macmillan Dictionary and “The Optics of Politics” in Psychology Today were the references deleted by they Hays Commission.

  10. “Argentineans” are what they are called in North America , just like “Tennesseans”, “Chaldeans”, “Indo-Europeans”, “Mycenaeans”
    These are all dictionary words. Furthermore, the singular forms are used as adjectives: The Argentinean Air Force, the Chaldean Empire, the Indo-European language, the Mycenaean Greeks, Tennessean agriculture, Tennessean culture.
    I do not think that is right to be contrafactual about Argentineans, Chaldeans, and Mycenaeans. The Chaldeans and Tennesseans will get you for that!

  11. What is the demonym for a person from Orléans? The present article in the Wikipedia does not say. Could it be “Orléanean”, “Orléanian”?,
    “Orleanian”? “Orlenian”? “Orlenean”?
    The Wikipedia does say that a person from New Orleans is a “New Orleanian”, just like a Babylonian, an Egyptian, a Parthian, a Pythian, or a Scythian, a Martian, or a Venusian.
    I remember in “Abbot and Costello Go to Outer Space”, the two Earthlings landed in New Orleans during the Mardi Gras, and they encountered many New Orleanians dressed as Venusians and Martians.

  12. Yes, Cecelia, “discrete”, and not “discreet”. I have seen this mistake so many times that my eyes just gloss over it. (The correct meaning comes from the context.)
    In electronics, computers, flight control systems, etc., there is the use of the “discrete-time system”. This means that the information is processed in tiny steps in time.
    It does not have anything to do with “discrete time”, like times when we were trying to keep something “hush-hush”. LOL.

  13. I guess now that I’m aware of this usage, I’m noticing it more.
    I recently read an article about a new camera announced in an upcoming smartphone. Immediately after describing the camera’s technology, the article talked about the announcement’s timing and it’s effect on the market. The author used the word “optics” related to that. It was a stupid choice. Highly misleading in an article about a camera, and it wasn’t an intentional play on words, either. Or, if it was meant to be, it failed miserably.
    I say we take up torches and pitchforks about this use of ‘optics’ eradicate it!

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