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The meaning and origin of the expression: Silver bullet

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Silver bullet

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Meaning

A direct and effortless solution to a problem.

Origin

We now use the term 'silver bullet' to refer to an action which cuts through complexity and provides an immediate solution to a problem. The allusion is to a miraculous fix, otherwise portrayed as 'waving a magic wand'. This figurative use derives from the use of actual silver bullets and the widespread folk belief that they were the only way of killing werewolves or other supernatural beings.

Silver bulletThe most famous user of silver bullets was of course the Lone Ranger. This cowboy series ran from 1933 on radio and later as a highly popular television show. Silver bullets fitted well with the masked hero's miraculous persona. He typically arrived from nowhere, overcame evil and departed, leaving behind only a silver bullet and echoes of 'who was that masked man?'.

The belief in the magical power of silver, especially of weapons made from silver, is very ancient. Book XVI of Horace's Odes has it that the Delphic Oracle advised Philip of Macedonia to 'fight with silver spears'. References to the use of silver bullets date from the late 17th century. An early 19th century citation which specifically mentions the belief in their use as the only way to kill evil supernatural beings is found in Sir Walter Scott's Tales of My Landlord, 1816:

Conspicuous by his black horse and white feather ... the object of aim to everyone, he seemed as if he were impassive to their shots. The superstitious fanatics looked upon him as a man gifted by the Evil Spirit with supernatural means of defence. Many a whig that day loaded his musket with a dollar cut into slugs, in order that a silver bullet (such was their belief) might bring down the persecutor of the holy kirk, on whom lead had no power.

There are numerous examples in 19th century fiction of the efficacy of silver bullets against werewolves, witches, the Devil and all manner of creatures, which were generically called 'uncanny bodies'.

Into the 20th century and the term was adopted in other contexts as meaning a solution to a problem. War bonds with that name were issued in 1914. In 1916, The Times advised the population of the UK to:

"Invest the savings in buying 'Silver Bullets' in the form most suitable and convenient - Exchequer bonds, or through the Post Office Savings Bank."

Silver Bullet cocktails, a solution in a literal sense, were devised a little later. Harry Craddock's Savoy Cocktail Book, 1930, lists the ingredients:

Silver bullet cocktail. {half} Gin. {quarter} Lemon Juice. {quarter} Kummel. Shake well and strain into cocktail glass.

The expression 'magic bullet' also came into being at around this time. This had a similar meaning to 'silver bullet' but related specifically to highly targeted medical treatments. It was coined by the German scientist Paul Ehrlich in a speech in 1906, using the German word Zauberkugel. This was translated as 'magic bullet' when Ehrlich's work was reported in Science, in August 1924:

"Ehrlich aptly compared them [natural antibodies] to magic bullets, constrained by a charm to fly straight to their specific objective, and to turn aside from anything else in their path."

Oddly, the figurative use of 'silver bullet' that is now commonplace wasn't adopted into general use until well after all of the above, probably in response to the activities of 'that masked man'. The US newspaper The Bedford Gazette included this piece in a September 1951 issue:

"There are those who warn against viewing the atom as a magic weapon... I agree. This is not a silver bullet which can deliver itself or otherwise work military miracles."