What does the word 'operators' mean in here? Does it actually mean technical operator or is it an idiom of some sort?

I noticed a connection between the barn-burning section of The Moon and the Bonfires and William Faulkner's The Hamlet before I discovered that this was the final novel that Pavese trans­lated; Faulkner's backwater know-nothings and operators are an American counterpoint to the have-nots of the impover­ished, rural Italian setting in Moon.

This is from Mark Rudman's introduction for Cesare Pavese's novel. I know Faulkner's The Hamlet has a social theme of some sort in it, but I can't find the connection between the word 'operator' with 'know-nothings', 'have-nots', and 'impoverished'.

  • 2
    Probably refers to the power players of the area at the time...Snopes and his kin. Feb 1, 2021 at 14:15
  • You might read it as "manipulators".
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 1, 2021 at 14:17
  • 2
    From above comments, Merriam-Webster has Operator "2a: MOUNTEBANK, FRAUD b: a shrewd and skillful person who knows how to circumvent restrictions or difficulties" merriam-webster.com/dictionary/operator
    – Stuart F
    Feb 1, 2021 at 14:18
  • Also, know-nothing may not mean exactly an idiot: see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Know_Nothing
    – Stuart F
    Feb 1, 2021 at 14:19
  • 1
    Like a smooth operator, I'd call an operator a big shot, or slick, but not necessarily bad or fraudulent. Feb 1, 2021 at 14:21

1 Answer 1



The actual meaning of the word in this sense (as used by Mark Rudman) is difficult to find in Lexico and Cambridge.

However, YourDictionary has

An operator is defined as someone who is shrewd or manages difficulties easily. An example of an operator is a person who is an aggressive stock trader. An example of an operator is a man who can get a woman's phone number at a bar.

And, we do have business operator and political operator in common usage.

Facebook’s chief, once uninterested, has transformed himself into an active political operator in the Trump era


LawInsider says...

a business operator as defined in the Freedom of Business Activity Act of 2 July 2004,

And I also find...

Leader, Manager, Operator--Which are you?


What does the word mean in (sic) here?

I believe that in this case it is a usage of a modern meaning that refers to shady deal makers and local politicians of of the 1850s. As far as I know, the word was not commonly used at that period of time to describe corruption. There were other words. To confuse things even more, Faulkner was writing about fictional events which had supposedly occurred a century before.

Any Faulkner reader will tell you that it no doubt refers to the nefarious actions of the Snopes family and their hangerson. They were an inherently corrupt lot, and often overly-appreciative of their own business acuity.

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    The reference to "know-nothings" is confusing...there was a resurrection of the Whig party in the 50s, but... Feb 2, 2021 at 19:38

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