Those of us who use words for a living, like to play with their nuance, their sound, even play them in our heads long before we put them on paper or speak them.
At least most of us do.
Those who edit my written words have gotten hugely frustrated with me. My syntax, grammar, and even meaning have sometime--in their opinions--been left askew because I wanted to insist on using a certain word, or using it in a certain context, or order of words.
Yet through the writing of three best-selling books, more than a 1000 op-ed columns, and more broadcast show prep than I care to think about, I bet I have used the word optimal less than a dozen times. The reason being that it's just an odd word.
It's not a word that people use often. It's not as flashy as say the word fantastic. It's not as elite as the word excellent. In fact it's kind of a hard word to say, starting with that awkward "ah" sound. A sound that left by itself much mirrors a gag reflex.
Such a reflex was largely invoked on Thursday when within seconds of appearing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, first the transcript, and then the video itself began pouring out across the internet with President Obama stating that losing four public servants in Libya was not "optimal."
You see optimal is supposedly a declarative assertion of what is best. Yet just saying the word doesn't seem to lend one's thoughts to such an idea. In fact when I think of the word it always strikes me as better than average but not necessarily the very peak of perfection. It's a funny word. Kind of a shadow of what it's own meaning is supposed to imply. Like a bumper that's mostly chrome, except for the rust just on one end.
So using it to describe the brutal assault that killed a beloved ambassador, a retired Air Force officer, and two of our nation's very best--Navy Seals, seems to be a bit of an insult, even if none was intended.
I mean, I think I know what the President meant to say. I think he wanted to say that the taking of our personnel was "awful," "tragic," "a loss and a sting that their families will mourn through for the next year, and beyond that endure sadness on every holiday." Doesn't that sound a whole lot more like what a President should have said?
Maybe it's because law professors tend to be such... eh... law professors, that somewhere along the line the part of them that feels human emotion just completely unplugs from their brain. You know the type. They will sit and argue any issue from every possible perspective, all the while, not really telling you which one they think is right. Because making a moral judgement in court cases may not always be "optimal."
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