Focused, perhaps, like a laser

An offhand comment by an Australian diplomat reminds the Monitor's language columnist that less is sometimes more in metaphors.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to reporters about efforts to disarm Syria of their chemical weapons at the start of his meeting with Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans, not pictured, at the State Department in Washington, Friday, Sept. 20, 2013.

The effort to bring Syrian chemical weapons under international control, which at this writing is running a diplomatic course that the world can only hope will succeed, began with what many have described as an "offhand remark" by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Others suggest that if you're the nation's top diplomat, you make offhand remarks only when talking to yourself – in the shower.

Let's hope that another passing comment by a diplomat helps bring a particular cliché under international control. The diplomat in question is Richard Butler of Australia, and the cliché is "laser focused."

In a Huffington Post video interview shortly after President Obama's Sept. 10 speech, Mr. Butler noted how the Russian response to Mr. Kerry's "offhand comment" had transformed the Syrian crisis. "Now we're focused, perhaps like a laser, on the chemical weapons," he said.

Setting the "laser" off from the "focus" inserted a little ironic distance between him and his own words. He seemed to acknowledge the phrase as a cliché, but he and his interviewer had other ground to cover.

Butler is not alone in noticing that the laser reference has been getting a workout. Corporate executives say they are "laser focused" on whatever their current goal is.

Bloomberg studied transcripts of earnings calls and investor "events" so far this year and found the phrase "laser focused" appeared in more than 240. "[C]hief executive officers are increasingly beaming light on their targets," wrote Noah Buhayar of Bloomberg. They are on pace to beat last year's record of 287 such "beams."

Apple CEO Tim Cook, for instance, in a July press release, said: "We are laser-focused and working hard on some amazing new products." Sometimes, as at a tech firm, the laser image seems to fit the context.

Other times, not so much. Mr. Buhayar's piece also identified "laser focus" in the communications of children's book publisher Scholastic (twice!) and a maker of organic macaroni and cheese.

Buhayar also cited L.J. Rittenhouse, chief executive of Rittenhouse Rankings, a communications firm that tries to save clients from zapping themselves with their own laser beams, who estimates that "laser focus" has been around for about 10 years. Surely, though, it goes back longer than that.

A laser (first known use in 1957) is a device that emits light through a process of optical amplification based on the stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation.

And focus? It meant hearth in Latin and, by extension, referred to home and family. In post-Classical times, focus was used in Latin for fire itself, the Online Etymology Dictionary notes. It was Johannes Kepler who first calculated that planets orbited the sun not in perfect Copernican circles but in ellipses. He adopted "focus" for the mathematical sense of "point of convergence" in 1604. (A circle has one center; an ellipse has two foci.)

This was "perhaps on analogy of the burning point of a lens," the dictionary says: "the purely optical sense of the word may have existed before Kepler." By 1796, focus also meant "center of activity or energy."

Maybe the problem with "laser focused" is not just that it has become a cliché, or that it piles on two "light" metaphors where one would do. Maybe it's that laser seems so technical, whereas focus is more deeply rooted in the human experience. After all these centuries, focus still makes sparks.

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