Bullets, Silver and Magical

By Maeve Maddox

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A reader remarked on the use of “silver bullet” in this quotation: “The answer is to find a silver bullet that will wean us from fossil fuels.”

Suggests the reader, “The reference should be ‘magic bullet’ from the polio vaccine. ‘Silver bullet’ belongs to the lone ranger.”

The expression “magic bullet” may have originated in a medical context, but it is now used interchangeably with “silver bullet” to refer to “something providing an effective solution to a difficult or previously unsolvable problem.”

According to a note in M-W, “magic bullet” is a translation of German zauberkugel and its “first known use” in English was in 1924. Earlier than that (1907) a medical writer used the expression “charmed bullet” to mean “an idealized therapeutic agent that is highly specific for the pathogen or disorder concerned”: “Antitoxins and antibacterial substances are, so to speak, charmed bullets which strike only those objects for whose destruction they have been produced by the organism.”

The OED includes a 1992 citation for “magic bullet” that shows its use outside a medical context: “No one has yet found a magic bullet for quickly cutting Milwaukee’s crime rate.”

The phrase “magic bullet” appears on the Ngram Viewer as early as 1858, but doesn’t make much of a showing until 1920. The phrase “silver bullet” precedes both “magic bullet” and the Lone Ranger.

The Lone Ranger stories originated on US radio in 1933. The Ngram Viewer shows “silver bullet” on the graph as early as 1800, and the OED cites the phrase as early as 1648.

Magical properties have been ascribed to silver since ancient times. A silver bullet is supposed to be able to kill supernatural beings—such as witches and werewolves—that are impervious to ordinary weapons. In the Grimm story “The Two Brothers,” (published 1812), one of the brothers kills a witch with a silver bullet. An OED citation dated 1856 refers to “a belief in bullet-proof men” that caused some soldiers “to put in a silver coin with their bullets.”

The Lone Ranger’s use of a silver bullet as a talisman has nothing to do with supposed magical properties. This is the explanation given in a Lone Ranger FAQ at Weird Science-Fantasy:

Silver bullets are the Lone Ranger’s calling card. Silver is a symbol of purity. On the television show the Lone Ranger says he uses silver bullets as a symbol of justice, but more importantly, silver bullets serve to remind the Ranger of just how heavy a price firing a gun can be.

Although it has nothing to do with silver bullets, I cannot resist mentioning another bit of Lone Ranger lore. The guidelines prepared by the series’ producers include the following directive:

The Lone Ranger at all times uses precise speech, without slang or dialect. His grammar must be pure. He must make proper use of “who” and “whom,” “shall” and “will,” “I” and “me,” etc.

Be still, my heart.

An early use of “silver bullet” was as a metaphor for “money used to achieve military aims,” as illustrated in these OED citations:

We have won with the silver bullets before.— D. Lloyd George Speech Treasury, Times, 1914.

Invest the savings in buying ‘Silver Bullets’ in the form most suitable and convenient—Exchequer bonds, scrip, or through the Post Office Savings Bank.— Times, 1916.
Liberty Bond slogans, the appeal of young America to their elders for ‘silver bullets’ to fight the battle of liberty, will be prominently displayed. —Oakland (Calif.) Tribune, 1917.

As for present usage, Google search shows “magic bullet” and “silver bullet” about equally frequent:

“magic bullet”: 7, 290,000 results
“silver bullet”: 7, 220,000 results

Bottom line: Both expressions are used with the same meaning: something—substance or action—that provides an all-encompassing solution to a long-standing problem.

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1 Response to “Bullets, Silver and Magical”

  • Julie Link

    I wasn’t familiar with the use of “silver bullet” to mean “panacea”; I had known it only as a means of death to a supernatural creature. I recently solved a NYT crossword in which the answer to the clue “vampire’s bane” was “silver bullet.”

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