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.