How did 'optics' become a buzzword for PR?

While Newton and Galileo might well be appalled by the more contemporary uses of the word optics, it is interesting to see that such a venerable word still finds new uses several centuries after its origin.

Apr 1st, 2010
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While Newton and Galileo might well be appalled by the more contemporary uses of the word optics, it is interesting to see that such a venerable word still finds new uses several centuries after its origin.

By Jeff Bairstow

In language mavenBill Safire's final "On Language" column last September, he noted that "Optics is hot, rivaling content." Well, now, is that a fact? So let's take a look at the happening world of optics. Just what is the meaning of the word "optics?" You may remember what Humpty Dumpty had to say about the meaning of words.

"'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.'" So said the famous character and early word maven in the Lewis Carroll children's fantasy story. I thought that I, too, knew what I meant when I used the word "optics." Wrong!

Recently, the Sunday Magazine section of The New York Times devoted its highly respected "On Language" column to the word "optics," with the subhead, "A scientific-sounding buzzword for 'public relations.'" Well, excuuuuuse me! And this from an industry that generates more drivel per acre of newsprint than there are visible stars in our galaxy.

We can probably trace the conception of the alternate use of the word "optics" at least to Robert Strauss, who in 1978 was special adviser on inflation for then-President Jimmy Carter. Asked to comment on the value of inviting business leaders to the White House to discuss anti-inflation measures, Strauss is reported to have said, "It would be a nice optical step." In other words, such a gathering would be a nice piece of PR with plenty of photo ops.

This particular "On Language" column on optics was written by Ben Zimmer, the executive producer of Visual Thesaurus, a novel interactive dictionary and thesaurus. This online thesaurus is worth a Google, by the way. Visual Thesaurus is available by online subscription for around $20/year. In my view, this service would seem to be a useful tool not only for the professional writer or copy editor but also for anyone who enjoys playing around with words.

If I remember correctly from many years of being at the sharp end of too much "flak" (press releases to some, "anti-aircraft fire" to others), there was no shortage of "buzzwords" available to the public relations professionals, often called "flacks," to keep their clients happy.

But I digress. Here are a couple of brief word tests to see how au courant you are in the buzzword department.

Which of the following sentences offers an acceptable usage of the word "optics?"

  1. Optics will not cure inflation.
  2. Energy policies are being set today more on the optics of the situation…
  3. The beauty of optics is in the eye of the beholder.

Answer: "all of them."

And which of these "scientific" words also have nonscientific usages?

Image, laser, forensic, technique, adapt, smart.

Answer: "all of them."

And then there are many multiple usages from the world of computers, such as "release," "bug," "firewall," "compile," "crash," "media," etc. I'm sure you could easily come up with dozens more.

While Newton and Galileo might well be appalled by the more contemporary uses of the word "optics," it is interesting to see that such a venerable word still finds new uses several centuries after its origin. Zimmer cites several Canadian uses of "optics" and even goes so far as to suggest that the French word optique can refer to both the science of optics and the political view or perspective. Mon dieu!

I hope I can be forgiven for saying that it's all a matter of optics, in my view. Do you see what I mean? Optics is the name of the game.

Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor
inmyview@yahoo.com

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