“We must be very careful of the optics of this policy” – statement by a Government spokesman concerning the financing of health care, January 2023.

“… what we really need in this circumstance is to make smart decisions in the best interest of student safety—not simply make changes that win political points for optics”.

My second quotation comes from the internet – where it is attributed to “north America” – confirming my hunch that this is, yet again, a usage that has come to us from the United States (and I can’t rule out Canada on that evidence). 

According to the Oxford English Reference Dictionary, “Optics” is ‘the scientific study of sight and the behaviour of light, or of other radiation or particles’ – and the Dictionary gives us the example of “electron optics”. It’s difficult to see how the word can be used in connection with a government policy on health or student safety, or anything else.

“Optic”, of course, means many things, all connected with the eye, from the Greek optikos: what is seen. The word also signifies, perhaps oddly, the glass attachment to a container of alcohol suspended above the bar in the pub for measuring the quantity of liquid dispensed each time. This is not as irrelevant as might first appear. The act of measuring is translated into what is seen or made visible: a useful flexibility that lies behind the shift of meaning we are looking at, and which is taking place in the language even as I write.  

The “optics” of a government policy clearly do not lend themselves literally to physical measurement or to a visual effect. The whole notion of something visual has been taken over as a metaphor for the effect on public perceptions of a particular policy or political idea. I’m intrigued by the fact that the metaphor has built into it the concept behind the bar-room measuring device, of gauging with precision how much of an idea or a policy should be revealed to the public at one time.

It’s an idea particularly relevant to the concerns of the propagandist or advertiser, the deviser of readily assimilable and attractive packaging for ideas needing to be “sold” to the public.

The principle can be applied to almost any public statement. All demagogues know this. Ideas are potent. Like alcohol they can inspire or inflame those who receive them, and must therefore be dispensed in measured doses. It’s interesting that English (or at least American) has finally caught up with modern thinking on the subject. And clearly British English is treading close on its heels.  

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