Leave it to Roseanna to browse through the dictionary for fun on the weekend. 😉 Sunday as I was beginning to think about the Word of the Week, I popped over to www.etymonline.com and accidentally bumped the O section. Then thought, “Sure, go with it” and browsed through a few pages. Randomly clicked on page 11 and soon was learning something. =)
Operative as an adjective is from the 15th century, meaning “producing the intended effect.” The weakened sense of “important” (i.e., “challenge being the operative word in the speech”) is very new, from 1955. But it’s the noun version that intrigued me. =)
Since 1809 operative has meant “worker; one who operates.” Sure. No problem. But obviously the more interesting is its meaning of “spy.” I’d never looked up this one before, but it’s so right up my alley that I’m kinda surprised I hadn’t, LOL. This meaning came about around 1930, directly from the Pinkerton Agency. They would refer to their detectives as “operatives,” and since much of their work was undercover–spying–it was soon applied to any secret agent. Fun, eh?
Print Friendly, PDF & Email