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verb (used without object), op·er·at·ed, op·er·at·ing.
  1. to work, perform, or function, as a machine does: This engine does not operate properly.
  2. to work or use a machine, apparatus, or the like.
  3. to act effectively; produce an effect; exert force or influence (often followed by on or upon): Their propaganda is beginning to operate on the minds of the people.
  4. to perform some process of work or treatment.
  5. Surgery. to perform a surgical procedure.
  6. (of a drug) to produce the effect intended.
  7. Military.
    1. to carry on operations in war.
    2. to give orders and accomplish military acts, as distinguished from doing staff work.
  8. to carry on transactions in securities, or some commodity, especially speculatively or on a large scale.
  9. Informal. to use devious means for one's own gain; insinuate oneself; finagle: a man who knows how to operate with the ladies.
verb (used with object), op·er·at·ed, op·er·at·ing.
  1. to manage or use (a machine, device, etc.): to operate a switchboard.
  2. to put or keep (a factory, industrial system, ranch, etc.) working or in operation: to operate a coal mine.
  3. to bring about, effect, or produce, as by action or the exertion of force or influence.

Origin of operate

1600–10; < Late Latin operātus, past participle of operārī, -āre to work, be efficacious, effect, produce, Latin: to busy oneself, verbal derivative of opera effort, work, akin to opus work; see -ate1
Related formsop·er·at·a·ble, adjectivepre·op·er·ate, verb (used without object), pre·op·er·at·ed, pre·op·er·at·ing.re·op·er·ate, verb (used with object), re·op·er·at·ed, re·op·er·at·ing.un·op·er·at·a·ble, adjectiveun·op·er·at·ed, adjectivewell-op·er·at·ed, adjective
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

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British Dictionary definitions for operate


  1. to function or cause to function
  2. (tr) to control the functioning ofoperate a machine
  3. to manage, direct, run, or pursue (a business, system, etc)
  4. (intr) to perform a surgical operation (upon a person or animal)
  5. (intr) to produce a desired or intended effect
  6. (tr usually foll by on) to treat or process in a particular or specific way
  7. (intr) to conduct military or naval operations
  8. (intr) to deal in securities on a stock exchange

Word Origin for operate

C17: from Latin operāri to work
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for operate

c.1600, "to be in effect," back-formation from operation, or else from Latin operatus, past participle of operari "to work, labor, toil, take pains" (in Late Latin "to have effect, be active, cause"). Surgical sense is first attested 1799. Meaning "to work machinery" is from 1864 in American English. Related: Operated; operating. Operating system in the computer sense is from 1961.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

operate in Medicine


  1. To perform surgery.
The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.