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Quebec English is more than mere optics

July, 2010

A Google search of optics + politics will return almost 2.2 million hits and it is difficult to read any sort of political analysis without the word “optics” popping up.

When President Barack Obama responded to the attempted bombing of an Amsterdam to Detroit flight on Christmas Day 2009, while Obama was on vacation in Hawaii, some Republicans called it “bad optics.” In a February article in the Toronto Star, Emile Therrien, past president of the Canadian Safety Council, characterized the proposal to lower the legal limit of alcohol for impaired driving was “all optics,” part of the “tough on crime” campaign.

In an article in the On Language column in the New York Times some months ago, Ben Zimmer explains the process whereby optics became one of the pre-eminent political buzzwords. Surprisingly, the route runs through Canada, and specifically into Quebec. On April 7, 1983, the Globe and Mail featured the headline Optics Is Name of Game and the article elucidated that “they say in Larry Grossman’s Health Ministry, it’s all a matter of optics. This has nothing to do with the eyes, but has everything to do with the way the public sees things.”

Zimmer admits that the political meaning of optics is more prevalent in Canada than in the United States and he asked Canadian lexicographer Stefan Dollinger why this is the case. Dollinger believes it is so because bilingual Canadians are familiar with the French term optique.

In standard French, optique not only refers to the science of optics, but to visual appearance in general. According to Beryl Wajsman, editor of The Suburban, optique and optics may have slept together in Montreal in 1980 during the stormy Quebec sovereignty referendum.

While optics might have originated in Quebec, anglophones in this province should not assume that all their usages will be understood, not only by Americans but even by their own countrymen. Some years ago while working at a Quebec-based company, I told a telephone receptionist in Newfoundland that my “local is 222.” She ejaculated: “Your what?” I quickly corrected myself and said: “My extension is 222.”

There are many usages one hears that demonstrate that Quebec English is a real phenomenom. And I am not talking about such terms as dépanneur, caisse populaire, métro and CEGEP.

As a demonstration of the difference of Quebec English, I’ve concocted the following, where I’ve placed the standard English usage in brackets:

The professor (high school teacher) at the polyvalent (high school) believed that scholarity (schooling) was being affected by students consecrating (devoting) more time to manifestations (student demonstrations) about the dress code than to their notes (grades). During his conferences (lectures), their inattention was hurting their apprenticeship (learning).

He also felt he was getting collaboration (co-operation) from his confrères (colleagues) in better serving the collectivity (community). He checked his co-ordinates (contact information) and then set up a rendezvous (meeting) with the director-general (principal), Monsieur Langlois, and stated that it was a primordial (essential) consideration that some teachers be released before they reached permanence (tenure) under the syndicate (union) agreement.

Monsieur Langlois wrote back, saying that he was aware of the problem and had requested a subvention (grant) in the annex (appendix) to his planification (policy) budget to the confessional (denominational) school board in order that formation modalities (training methods) be created to ameliorate (improve) the performance of teachers and those performing stages (apprenticeships) more dynamic animators (group leaders).

Some of these terms, like collaboration, rendezvous, annex and ameliorate could be used in non-Quebec English contexts, however I suspect such words as co-operation, meeting, appendix and improve respectively are more likely to be employed.

We Quebec anglos are indeed a distinct society. And that ain’t just optics.

Howard Richler’s latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.



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