Wednesday, May 05, 2004
  Silly language innovations

It seems that one of the driving forces in (American) English public communication is the search for one-word nouns that encapsulate ideas. Unfortunately, this leads to some very silly innovations, like the one I heard on NPR the other day. They were discussing the recent reports of abuse of Iraqi prisoners, and the fact that the military had outsourced interrogation to private contractors. The reasoning behind this outsourcing was not merely financial, the analyst said, but also because the politically-driven desire to be distanced from such unsavory activities. “It's the politics of it,” said the analyst, “It's the optics of it.”

Optics?!? What does the study of the refraction of light have to do with motivation to outsource interrogation?

Yes, I understood what he meant: that it has to do with how such interrogation appears to people -- with how it looks. Some people would say that's sufficient; after all, he chose a term to communicate his meaning and I understood it, and isn't that what communication is all about? True, but there's a lot more to communication than merely conveying a meaning. The words we choose say something about us and our audience, and I'm not sure I like the connotations of his choice to use “optics” to describe this. It's too much PR. I suppose that's only fitting in a culture like ours where optics appearance is everything...