A new lens

The rise of ‘optic,’ and how we love shiny toys

The trouble with being a lexicographer is that you’re often less interested in the point someone is making than in the language they use to make it.

This happened to me not long ago when I was listening to the morning news. “We’re seeing this through the optic of our idea of democracy,” a political pundit said.

“Hang on,” I thought. “When did optic replace lens?”

This wasn’t a case of the trendy use of optics to mean “outward appearances” — the public-relations concern over how the look of something affects people’s perceptions of it (as in a recent Washington Examiner article that mentioned the “need to control the optics of” lifting the oil drilling ban). The speaker was using “optic” in the sense of perspective, and it was a use I recognized from somewhere else entirely, the optique of French literary theory.

In French, the word optique has meant “point of view” at least since the 19th century. It jumped into English in the 1960s through translations of theorists like Roland Barthes, who used it to refer to a reader’s perspective in responding to a text. From there it entered the prose of academics writing in English; by 1991, M. Keith Booker was writing about “reading Chaucer through the optic of postmodernism.” But how and when did the word make it out of academia?

Political theory is a likely channel. We can see a nice example of literary and political theory overlapping in the title of a 1999 article by Michael Null in Shakespeare Quarterly: “Broken English and Broken Irish: Nation, Language, and the Optic of Power in Shakespeare’s Histories.” Optic here is referring to a nationalist viewpoint, a use we also see in the book “A World Without Islam,” in which its author, Graham Fuller, says, “The problem lies in the optic we employ….[W]e believe we are essentially out there, just minding our own business, trying to help make the world right.”

This political use of optic is the one I heard on the radio, and it seems to be preferred over perspective or lens when what’s meant is something less unconscious and more chosen about the way one sees the world. And that’s an interesting development to watch. The stock-in-trade of lexicographers is language change: How are people using words? Is a new meaning developing, or is an older meaning migrating to a new context?

It’s fairly common knowledge that English happily borrows words from other languages and loves a good new coinage. Something sparkly like optic catches our attention, and we shove aside a perfectly serviceable word like lens (a much earlier adoption) to make room for it, often giving it a nuance of meaning that justifies our having swiped it.

English will often raid its own attic, too. Wherever a word or phrase came from originally, if it’s been in the language for a while and is in active use, chances are if the meaning hasn’t shifted yet, it will. Take the word parse, which means to break out and describe in detail the grammar of each part of a sentence. We’ve hauled it out of its specialized jargon drawer and given it a good airing, but along the way we’ve diluted its meaning. Now we see headlines like “Candidates for Maine House Parse Economy” and even “Parse Out the Parking Issue.” Compared with parsing something, clarifying or explaining seem so, well, 20th century, don’t they?

The use of parse in an abstract sense at least has a little history behind it. But many times, a shift in meaning happens without much warning. For instance, the current business-world use of monetize — roughly “to make money out of” (“How can we monetize our website?”) — hasn’t even made it into mainstream dictionaries yet. In the sense that economists use the verb, if you monetize an asset or a debt, you convert it into money. If you monetize an economy, you convert a barter system to a money system. It’s not a stretch to see how the older, specialized meanings lent themselves to the extended one, but clearly it has happened too fast for dictionaries to keep up.

Tracing exactly how and when a new use sprang up can be like trying to pinpoint the first dandelion in a field that’s been overrun with them. The first seed might be from an influential academic, author, or pundit — anyone who’s a popular talking head. Those who want to sound as though they’re smart and in the know pick it up, sometimes mangling it through misunderstanding. Suddenly, the term is everywhere, like yellow flowers in a yard.

In some cases, a word’s new use, whether coined, borrowed, or adapted, fills a gap: A newly invented technology needs a name, or another language has just the word for a concept it takes us a sentence to describe. But many times there isn’t a hole in English; we didn’t really need a new word for “make money from,” or “figure out,” or “perspective.” It’s just that when we see a new model, we like to trade up.

I don’t ask whether the reason is pretension or bandwagon-jumping or insecurity or love of the new. I’m just fascinated when it happens. I’m sorry; what was your point?

Wendalyn Nichols is the US commissioning editor for Cambridge ELT Dictionaries, www.dictionary.cambridge.org, and the editor of Copyediting newsletter

Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/10/17/a_new_lens/