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Silver bullet

Q From Gerald Guo, Taiwan; related questions came from Tony Nolan, Jim Williams and others.: On 8 April, the US National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, told a national commission that ‘there was no silver bullet that could have prevented’ the attacks of 11 September 2001. What is a silver bullet? Where does it originate?

A Dr Rice’s comments were widely reported and brought the phrase to the notice of many people who hadn’t previously encountered it. Americans frequently use it to refer to some simple and seemingly magical solution to a complicated problem. In that sense, it seems to be a conflation of, or perhaps a confusion between, an older sense of silver bullet and the very similar magic bullet.

We have to look into European folklore to find out where silver bullet comes from. There are lots of stories in which they are the only way to kill some supernatural enemy. Werewolves were believed to have been given the power to change form by the Devil in return for acting as his servants. Nothing ordinary could kill one — only a silver bullet would do it. Basically, what a stake through the heart was to a vampire, a silver bullet was to a werewolf. Later, the same idea was applied to other supernatural entities. Some of the legends say that a hare, who was either a witch in disguise or the familiar of a witch, could only be killed in this way. Others refer to any man who had sold himself to the Devil, or sometimes to the Devil himself, who could be scared off by such means. Another legend says that a silver bullet would never miss its target.

Obviously, these legends couldn’t appear before guns were invented, but the first examples are actually rather late even so: the first I know of is dated about 1700 and the stories didn’t become common until the early nineteenth century. The legends are common to many European countries, but the figurative sense is characteristically American.

Magic bullet is rather more recent. It’s a direct translation of the German word Zauberkugel, which is said to have been created by the medical scientist Dr Paul Ehrlich in reference to his search, much opposed by the medical establishment of the time, for a cure for syphilis. The term is recorded in English from about 1938 to mean some drug, usually as yet undiscovered, that will be the perfect cure for a specific disease. It suddenly became common in American newspapers in 1940, presumably as the result of a film of that year, Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, which had Edward G Robinson in the title role.

It’s notable that silver bullet also became more widely known in the US as the result of a famous series, the Lone Ranger Show (on radio from 1933 and later on television). The Lone Ranger typically arrived out of nowhere to perform miraculous feats and would leave a silver bullet as a mark that he had been there.

It looks very much as though these media influences caused the traditional supernatural sense of silver bullet to shift towards that of the upstart magic bullet. You can see the sense evolving in this quotation from a Pennsylvania paper, the Bedford Gazette, of 19 September 1951: “‘There are those who warn against viewing the atom as a magic weapon,’ he continued. ‘I agree. This is not a silver bullet which can deliver itself or otherwise work military miracles.’ ” The earliest example I can find in a clearly figurative sense is in the Chronicle Telegram of Elyria, Ohio, for 18 March 1971: “Drug abuse, as virtually other major problem, is ... not given to simplistic silver bullet solutions.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 22 Apr. 2004

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 22 April 2004.