Maybe it’s a matter of optics. Take cars, for instance. Put a Porsche next to a Kia and it’s easy to spot the former’s superior design and engineering and understand (to some extent) its inflated price tag.

optics : the scientific study of light and the way we see.

It has nothing to do with scientific study here, isn't it?

Another :

Obama dropped by an Orlando campaign office Sunday night before bailing on the Central Florida event with President Bill Clinton (who showed up with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson) and instead returning to the White House to monitor Hurricane Sandy threaten much of the Northeast.

“The president…has real responsibilities. Those responsibilities come first,” Axelrod said. “We’re obviously going to lose a bunch of campaign time but that’s as it has to be. We’ll try to make it up on the back end. It’s not a matter of optics. It’s a matter of responsibility.”

  • I think it might be just sloppy usage, where the intended sense is optionals (i.e. - things the campaign organisers can choose to do or not, as opposed to things they have a moral responsibility/duty to do whether they like it or not). Mar 13, 2013 at 17:06
  • It is perhaps being used as a poor substitute for perception?
    – yoozer8
    Mar 13, 2013 at 17:10
  • @Jim: Yes, I was refering to the second example. I think in the first one it's a poor word-choice for perception, looks, appearance. Whatever they're supposed to mean, it's Too Localised for a learners site. Mar 13, 2013 at 17:16
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers Interesting that this sense of the word is in dictionaries. I'd never heard it before, so my feeling is that it's rare, but I'm not sure what to think now that I've read J.R.'s answer.
    – user230
    Mar 13, 2013 at 20:14
  • @snailplane: I'd never come across it before either. Here's a 1977 reference to merely "cosmetic" or a matter of optics (in a book about "lawyering") so it's not that new, and it's not just a word used by marketeers and political spin doctors. But if we as competent native speakers aren't aware of the usage, I find it hard to see why it should end up getting so many more upvotes for both question and answer than most other posts here on a learners site. Weird indeed. Mar 13, 2013 at 21:45

1 Answer 1


When you find a word that's being used in a way that doesn't seem to align with its formal definition, check more dictionaries.

In this case, we don't need to look far. We can look at Macmillan or Wordnik, where we will find these definitions listed:

optics (n.)

1 uncountable the scientific study of sight and light

2 singular the way a situation looks to the general public

3 figurative perception, image, public relations.

Over time, it's not uncommon for the meanings and nuances of words to bend, like light through a prism. In this case, "the scientific study of what we see" shifted to "the way we see or perceive something"; this is not a seismic shift.

How long it takes for each specific dictionary to catch up depends on several factors, including how widespread and enduring the new usage is, how much that particular edition is abridged, and the opinions and policies of the dictionary's editorial board.

  • I find the definitions cited lacking: "optics" also refers to a packaged item containing lenses e.g. gunsights, binoculars, night vision.
    – horatio
    Mar 13, 2013 at 18:31
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    @horatio: I didn't mean for my set of definitions to be all-encompassing; I only included definitions pertinent to the O.P.'s question.
    – J.R.
    Mar 13, 2013 at 19:35
  • I sure wish these dictionaries would cite a date for accession of meanings. The only one I've ever heard (or would intuitively understand) is the first, although the sense in which @horatio mentions it also makes sense to me (also with respect to cameras). Senses 2 and 3 seem to have emerged from ad-speak, which I wouldn't generally recommend for formal speech or writing. Mar 13, 2013 at 20:48
  • @barbarabeeton I'd hazard a guess that the figurative meaning arose when cheap consumer-grade digital cameras (still and video) became available and consumer reviews launched mass-market chatter about optics, hitherto of concern only to professionals and a very small number of fanatical amateurs. Mar 13, 2013 at 23:19

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