Consider the Optics

Newspaper articles increasingly use the word optics rather than look. More often than not it is used to convey a negative opinion. As in: ‘The Tory leadership candidates touring the country tearing each other to shreds, isn’t good optics for the party.’ Or: ‘the optics aren’t auspicious for Prince Andrew’s desire to return to public life.’ Or: ‘Surely it is poor optics to ban a group of lesbians from a Pride march?’

Consider the optics – no not these ones!

In all these sentences, some people have argued, it should be about the look of the thing, not the optics. Optics, after all, is that branch of science concerned with vision, sight, and light. (Alternatively, an optic is a device you attach to those big upside-down bottles of spirits you see behind the bar in pubs). It’s nothing to do with the public perception of a thing. In regard to halting the growing use of optics, though, to use another phrase increasingly popular in the Press these days, ‘that ship has sailed.’

You might not find optics as a synonym for look in the hardback dictionary gathering dust on your bookshelf, but it is different online. Collins online dictionary, for example, explains that ‘the optics of an action or event are the way it looks to people … the superficial appearance of an action or event.

Why has optics become so popular recently? Rose Wild, in The Times, attributes this to the TV drama Succession, first shown in 2018. The Roy family or their associates obsessively speculate, in regard to one scheme or other, about what the optics will be. I’ve never watched an episode of Succession, so have not been directly influenced by the series, but I can read about optics in the papers without experiencing any shock to the system, may even use the word myself one day.

So, will the new use for this word become established? At a guess, I would say the optics are looking good.

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