A mechanical and slightly detestable operandum

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The word operandum, featured in this morning's post about highbrow spam, is as yet unknown to the Oxford English Dictionary. But nearly 50 years ago, it was the title of a paper by none other than B.F. Skinner — "Operandum", J. Exp. Anal. Behav. 5(2), 1962 — which reads in its entirety:

An editor recently objected to manipulandum as "not in the dictionary." (A form, manipulare, of which it could conceivably be the gerundive, is only late medieval Latin and therefore lacking in status.) Tolman, who seems to have introduced the term, defines manipulanda as "the characters of objects which support motor activity." In current usage, they are the objects themselves. Strictly speaking, the term does not describe a device such as a foot-pedal or a voice-key which is not operated by hand, but manipulate has long since been generalized beyond that restriction.

A better and simpler word can be derived from operari. A piece of apparatus operated by an organism could appropriately be called an operatus, but this is dangerously close to a pun and would certainly be confusing. The gerundive operandum ought to be considered, however, as an alternative to manipulandum. It is close to operant, and its similarity to manipulandum and operate makes its meaning obvious.

(The business about an "apparatus operated by an organism … appropriately called an operatus" seems to call out for the skills of W.S. Gilbert or Tom Lehrer. But I digress.)

Google Scholar records 3,190 publications and other documents using the word operandum.  And Wallace Stevens used it in his 1954 poem "Looking across the fields and watching the birds fly":

1   Among the more irritating minor ideas
2   Of Mr. Homburg during his visits home
3   To Concord, at the edge of things, was this:

4   To think away the grass, the trees, the clouds,
5   Not to transform them into other things,
6   Is only what the sun does every day,

7   Until we say to ourselves that there may be
8   A pensive nature, a mechanical
9   And slightly detestable operandum, free

10   From man's ghost, larger and yet a little like,
11   Without his literature and without his gods …

I'm inclined to think that this is was an independent coinage, though for all I know Skinner and Stevens used to get together of an evening to swap neologisms. In any case, Oxford, you should put operandum on the list for a Word Induction Ceremony.

Manipulandum (with 5,890 Google Scholar hits) is already there, glossed as "Something which is manipulated; an object or feature designed for or capable of manipulation (esp. in a psychological test or experiment)."


  1. Dan T. said,

    June 24, 2010 @ 4:41 pm

    The abbreviated journal title J. Exp. Anal. Behav. gives the impression that it's a journal explaining anal behavior.

  2. Philip C. said,

    June 24, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

    Don't we already have "operand", a term in mathematics and computer science, as a derivation of the Latin gerundive?

  3. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 24, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

    But how is operandum supposed to be different from the more-or-less standard operand?

    [(myl) Operand, in the OED's gloss, is "The quantity or symbol on which a particular mathematical or logical operation is (to be) performed". Operandum, in Skinner's proposal (apparently taken up to a considerable extent by rat-runners worldwide), means "a piece of apparatus operated by an organism", or (taking the OED's gloss for manipulandum) "Something which is manipulated; an object or feature designed for or capable of manipulation (esp. in a psychological test or experiment)".

    So one is operated on by mathematical or logical operators, while the other is operated on by experimental subjects.]

  4. Mr Fnortner said,

    June 24, 2010 @ 5:20 pm

    The AHD says that English operand itself comes from the Latin operandum, the neuter gerundive of operari: "A quantity on which a mathematical or logical operation is performed." This strikes me as something operated on by the intellect. The proposal is that the English operandum be something that is operated on generically by an organism, regardless of whether the mind, hand, or something else is doing the operating. Is this the point? Is this an improvement?

  5. D.O. said,

    June 24, 2010 @ 5:25 pm

    Operandum from the Steven's poem might be a corruption of modus operandi. As in here. I confess though, that for me the meaning of the poem is murky.

  6. TB said,

    June 25, 2010 @ 12:27 am

    Wallace Stevens's poem titles have always been favorites of mine. But I think they benefit from all-caps:


    See? Or maybe it's just me.

  7. Bill Findlay said,

    June 25, 2010 @ 10:52 am

    Would a "voice-key" which IS "operated by hand" be a hand handle, I wonder?

  8. Elizabeth said,

    January 20, 2012 @ 3:18 pm

    Stevens' poem was published in 1954, in the volume "The Rock." Maybe Skinner got it from Stevens.

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