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The Word

'Optic' nerve

Political-speak takes a techie turn

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Freeman
May 18, 2008

PSST, SAID A friend, have you heard? Optics is the new metrics.

She wasn't talking about the science of light and sight, but the latest word in political jargon: Optics as a synonym for appearance, how a situation will look to the public eye.

Andrea Mitchell, for instance, said recently on "Hardball" that Barack Obama was "already concerned . . . about the optics" of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright before their recent split.

Metric, as a fancy word for yardstick or benchmark, is more familiar; it had its big moment a few years ago, when Donald Rumsfeld, that rhetorically innovative secretary of defense, kept searching for the "metrics" by which we might measure progress (or the lack of it) in Iraq.

But it wasn't new corporate jargon when he brought it to the "war on terror." The Oxford English Dictionary dates metric, meaning "system of measurement," to 1934, as a term of art in psychology.

Optics, in its new sense, looks to be more recent than metrics, though it's not an easy term to search. It turned up in a 1987 wire story quoting Howard Baker, President Reagan's chief of staff, on Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega's visit to Fidel Castro: "If he were an American politician, his advisers would be telling him they don't like the optics of it."

Objections to it date back at least nine years, to a post on the American Dialect Society listserv denouncing optics as "the new PRspeak currently bandied about by D.C. techwonks." A current political website calls it an "annoying trendy word for this election."

And yet, optics hasn't really made much headway in the lower 48; it's Canadians who've taken the usage to their hearts. Search Google News and you'll get plenty of examples, but almost all are datelined Toronto or Montreal or Winnipeg.

I can't guess why our northern neighbors would be early adopters of optics, but the word's appeal seems plain enough. It invokes a whole set of tech-and-science terms like physics, statistics, and tectonics, as well as Greek-derived high-concept nouns like hermeneutics, aesthetics, and pragmatics, all with an aura of brainy precision.

The only odd thing about the new optic is that its point of view has switched; optics used to be a property of the visual instrument, but now they belong to the lookee. If that mild weirdness didn't bother Canadians, though, it's not likely to slow down the spread of optics in this country. Look for it in a political analysis near you.

. . .

LICENSE TO SPELL: Reader Judi Chamberlin of Lexington e-mailed to point out an amusing typo in the Globe's Vox Populi column last week. A letter reprinted from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, addressing the Supreme Court's ruling on voter ID laws, observed that "many elderly do not have deification or a birth certificate."

Indeed. We may honor our father and mother, but rarely do we worship them as gods. It was clear that the intended word was "identification."

But was the goof a typo, or is it example of the spellchecker-aided error sometimes called the Cupertino effect? (The name comes from a time when some spellcheckers would replace a misspelling of "cooperation" with Cupertino, the city in Silicon Valley.)

Could be; if I type idenification my spellchecker properly autocorrects the word. But for idefication, it suggests edification, defecation, deification, or dedication, in that order - no "identification."

Newspapers have missed a number of funny Cupertino goofs; among the examples Ben Zimmer has posted on Language Log are wire stories that turned "Senator McCain" into "Senator moccasin" and MySpace into "misplace." But the spellchecker usually asks you to choose, so writer beware: You're only one click away from absurdity.

. . .

WHO'S YOUR DADDY? I went to Google News a few days ago, intent on serious research, and stumbled over this shocking news lead: "Now that it's confirmed Angelina Jolie will soon be bringing two more babies into this world, courtesy of Jolie's 'Kung Fu Panda' co-star, comedian Jack Black, the overwhelming attention refocused on the location where she will give birth."

Her forthcoming babies are courtesy of Jack Black? I may be behind the pop-culture curve, but even I would have heard (so I thought) if Brad and Angie's relationship was open enough to welcome twins fathered by another guy.

Now, I'm not a stickler on dangling modifiers; some are ridiculous, it's true, but others are barely noticeable. (If you like the zero-tolerance approach, check out Nancy Friedman's recent post on danglers at Fritinancy.)

But this sentence was begging to be misread. (And no, the headline didn't help: It was "Angelina Jolie Drops Delivery Location And Due Date Hints.") Yeah, I can hear you calling me clueless, all the way from Cannes. But if you're only writing for people who already know the story, why bother writing at all?

Correction: Because of a reporting error, the "Word" column in last Sunday's Globe misstated the hometown of reader Judi Chamberlin. She is from Arlington.

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