Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Writing Tics: The Optics of Metrics

The mayor's op-ed piece urged action on a regional 911 system, which, among other things, would "provide consistent and transparent performance metrics countywide." Alas, the program has not been put into effect, "as a result of the political optics."

If you were playing Buzzword Bingo, you might have won by now. Jargon and more jargon.

"Metrics" as used here has nothing to do with the metric system, though it does have to do with measurements. The Oxford English Dictionary traces this "metric" to 1988 as a colloquial usage meaning "measurements, figures, statistics." It has its roots in a psychological use first seen in 1934: "a system or standard of measurement in terms of which the conclusions stated hold," whatever that means. (BINGO!)

The use of "metrics" is endemic in business contexts, but it's gained yardage (dare we say, meterage) in mainstream journalism, where reporters parrot sources and talk about "establishing clear metrics to achieve" reductions in poverty worldwide and "advanced metrics in college basketball." "Setting goals" and "statistics" might work just as well, and wouldn't require readers to switch to a metric system.

These "metrics" have crept into sports, too, where "sabermetrics" often overtake the discussion of the plays themselves.

"Optics" is even more visible, and more out of control. The mayor was using "optics" to, in effect, mean "the politicians were worried what voters would think."

In news reports, you can see "optics" all over the place, usually in political contexts, but not always. President Obama's trip to Israel had "optics." A lawsuit filed in the Penn State case has "optics." Those "optics" mean there's an image at stake.

The American Journalism Review noted the epidemic in its Cliché Corner. "Optics" already has bad "optics"!

You won't find that use of "optics" in many dictionaries, though it is in Wiktionary, a crowdsourced dictionary ("(figuratively) Perception, image, public relations"), and its hip cousin, urbandictionary ("What something will look like to the outside world; the perception a public relations person would have on something"). Beauty may be in the optics of the reader.

Dictionaries notwithstanding, "optics" has other uses. The New York Times used it in a 1977 headline to refer to stained-glass windows, and in 1916 a baseball headline read: "GIANTS' BATTING OPTICS ARE BACK; This is the Most Cheering News Of Double Bill with Cubs." (The Giants were still in New York then, but the Cubs were still a losing team.) But maybe that was referring to the more recognizable use of "optics," and meant that the batters could see the ball at last.

In Britain, an "optic" is attached to the neck of an upside-down liquor bottle to meter out a precise amount of booze; maybe it's called an "optic" to allow the bartender to better "see" the dosage.

For "optics," of course, has at its heart "seeing," or "eyes," or "lens." So the "optics" of politics is just "how others see this." Sometimes it's written as "seen through the prism of …"

But all of those require that your audience has reading glasses to understand something that boils down to "the public perception." So why not just say that? Just don't forget that "l" in "public," or readers will see something else entirely.

For more on the history of "optics," see Ben Zimmer's 2010 "On Language" column.

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Word Count.

Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Thursday May 9th 2013, 3:29 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
Wow. Merrill Perlman used the word of the day in her column. Coincidence? Destiny? Or am I having trouble with my optics?
Thursday May 9th 2013, 10:21 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
"Calculus" is another borrowing from the hard sciences currently popular among politicians, businesspeople, and reporters. A quick scan of the last few weeks of the New York Times finds President Obama saying Syrian use of chemical weapons would "change my calculus"; the Walt Disney Company's withdrawal from Bangladesh reflecting "the difficult calculus" retailers are facing; and--in a story about professional basketball--"the (so far) successful road trip has changed the calculus."

What's meant in each case, I suspect, is something closer to "calculation," but "calculus" sounds ever so much more advanced.

Speaking for myself, whenever I see or hear "calculus" in this way I substitute the dental definition: "a hard yellowish deposit on the teeth."
Thursday May 9th 2013, 11:39 PM
Comment by: James R H. (Irvine, CA)
Such a cool article, with a brilliant finish.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.