Operative

Over on ADS-L, I’ve commented on a use of the adjective operative in a John McCain quote

“I’m the, as I said, loyal opposition,” Mr. McCain, Republican of Arizona, proclaimed this week. “And both words, I think, are operative.” (David M. Herszenhorn, “For John McCain, a Dual Role, Center Stage”, NYT 3/7/09)

Doug Kenter, who pointed the quote out to me, asked: Can both words be operative?  Or are all words always operative?

Among the senses of operative in the OED (draft revision of March 2009), there are three relevant groups, and McCain’s use falls into the third, most recent, group.

But discussing the example on ADS-L predictably reminded people of a famous use (from a different group of senses) of the word in a political context.

Group 1 [closely related to the verb operate]: in operation, in force, applicable

Group 2 [a specialization of group 1 uses]: “Of a word, etc.: essential to the meaning of the whole; of principal relevance”

Group 3 [a generalization (extension, bleaching) of group 1 uses]:  “In weakened sense (without reference to specific activity or production): significant, important”

Doug Kenter at first tried to understand McCain’s operative as belonging to group 2, like these OED examples:

1944 Downside Rev. 62 185 The prefix ‘in-’ of ‘inscape’ is the operative part.

1963 N. MARSH Dead Water (1964) ii. 43 ‘It was nice getting your occasional letters,’ Patrick said, presently. ‘Operative word “occasional”.’

1994 Midwest Home & Design Spring 72/1 ‘Up’ was the operative word in this remarkable Edina project.

(Other examples from 1656 on.) And his use of operative does have some of this flavor, but it also has a group 3 flavor, as in these OED examples:

1962 J. L. Austin’s How to do Things with Words i. 7 But ‘operative’..is often used nowadays to mean little more than ‘important’.

1979 Gourmet Dec. 26/1 He prepares it [sc. scampi dragoncello] by sautéing large shrimp with white wine, shallots, a light marinara sauce, and just enough dragoncello (the operative herb) to make its presence tactfully felt.

1990 J. K. GALBRAITH Financial Euphoria (1993) vii. 106 The circumstances that induce the recurrent lapses into financial dementia have not changed in any truly operative fashion.

(It’s a nice touch that the first cite is from J.L. Austin.)

So McCain’s use combines two sense developments in a single package: it refers specifically to words, but it doesn’t require that an operative word be the most important part, only that it be important.

[Many people would like to think of the history of word senses as a straight-line development from one sense to another and then that one to another and so on. This is rarely the case. In particular:

old senses are not replaced immediately by new ones, but coexist with them for some period of time, often an extremely long period of time;

the development of new senses (including specializations and generalizations) often branches in several different directions, so that the picture looks more like a tree than a straight line;

different senses sometimes combine, or at least interact with one another (as in the McCain quote), so that the picture looks more like a lattice than a tree;

and the development of senses for one word often is influenced by the senses for other words that are phonologically or semantically similar to it.]

Now to an earlier celebrated use of operative in a political context. It’s from Richard Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler on April 17, 1973, retracting earlier statements by the president that had been revealed to be false:

This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.

Here we have a group 1 sense: the other statements are no longer in force. (Ziegler also passed on Nixon’s weaselly political passive “mistakes were made” — which was not original with Nixon, though it was certainly made famous by him. From Ziegler on May 1, 1973, in a lame apology to the Washington Post and the reporters Woodward and Bernstein: “We would all have to say that mistakes were made in terms of comments [about the Post and the reporters].”)

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