I'm interested in the origin of the term smooth operator. Does anyone know where it came from? What kind of operation?
The word operator has had several slang meanings over time, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. A brief list of the time and definition of operator is:
1598: A person who performs a surgical operation or operations; an operating surgeon or dentist.
1611: A person who deals in quack medicines, etc. Obs.
1704: A person who commits fraudulent operations; a thief, a pickpocket.
1828: A person who carries on (speculative) financial operations. Also: a person adept at speculative or shrewd operations; (formerly) a person who acts in a cunning or underhand manner.
1838: A person who or company which runs a business, enterprise, etc.
1944: A person with a talent for seduction; a smooth talker.
The phrase smooth operator starts to appear in the late 1890s. For example, in "The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason", it says:
Here, a smooth operator is someone who is "smooth" at running a business or set of financial operations (the senses from the earlier 1800s). This is not the only application of smooth operator. In the 1980s, the OED notes the following usage:
1980 Photo-Love Summer Spectacular 7/1 You're quite a smooth operator, what with names and telephone numbers just like that!
The "operation" has changed over time. In the 1700 and 1800s, the "operation" was financial--it referred to either theft operations, speculating on stocks (operate as a verb meant "To deal or speculate in stocks or shares; to buy and sell commodities as a broker"), or business operations. Then, in the 1900s, the "operations" referred to the "business" of playing at courtship and seducing women.
Thus, now a smooth operator can refer to the "business" of financial operations or seduction operations, with smooth modifying operator in a primarily (and possibly solely) negative way.
The OED’s earliest citation for those actual words is dated 1980. However, a 1944 citation has 'Big-time operator, a slick chick's smooth fellow', itself a quotation from a slang dictionary of the time. Chambers Slang Dictionary defines ‘operator’ alone as ‘a successful seducer of women’ and dates it to the 1940s.
On PBS American Experience program about the Gilded Age and immigration during that period in American History. A "Smooth Operator" referred to a person who could operate a telegraph key with skill (a steady hand and speed)
From the movie The Best Years of Our Lives. Al is talking to his daughter about Fred and refers to him as a smooth operator. Google it.