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I was reading an article about software developers and read that something is being sold as a silver-bullet. What does it mean?

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While the answers all explain the meaning and origin of "silver bullet", shouldn't the focus be on the meaning of the whole phrase? I have the feeling that it is used ironically, to indicate that something is sold as if it was a wondrous cure-all, but in fact it isn't. For example, a software is advertised that this is what you will ever need for every situation. Especially financial/management etc. software are sold as if they could magically solve all the problems of your company without any effort from your part. –  vsz Jun 7 '12 at 14:25

4 Answers 4

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A silver bullet is supposed to be the only weapon that can kill a werewolf. It is used idiomatically in American English to refer to a simple solution to a complicated problem.

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Do you think it carries the connotation that it rarely lives up to its billing? –  JLG Jun 7 '12 at 7:03
Not just American English. Brits know about werewolves too (there was even an American Werewolf in London!) –  Andrew Leach Jun 7 '12 at 7:27
@JLG In BE it is often used with a connotation of being too good to believe. Mostly used in the negative - as in "there is no silver bullet [for problem x]". –  Schroedingers Cat Jun 7 '12 at 7:58

Nearly 30 years ago, Fred Brooks wrote a landmark paper entitled No Silver Bullet — Essence and Accidents of Software Engineering, hypothesizing the increasingly complex nature of software would not permit "quick fix" solutions, and that large-scale software systems need to be well-designed and incrementally developed. The paper was a huge success, and, even if his ideas aren't universally accepted, Brooks' writings are considered to have stood up to the test of time remarkably well in a field that evolves so quickly. The article has its own entry on Wikipedia, and a copy of the paper can be found here.

I'm not going to say that Brooks was the first to apply the werewolf metaphor to complex problems of the modern day (he wasn't; the Editor of the Lancet stated in 1959):

Peritoneal dialysis is obviously no "silver bullet" for renal failure, but in suitable cases it is a good leaden bullet, which should perhaps be more commonly fired.

however, his paper did prompt the expression to be widely cited in the computer science community. This Ngram shows that the expression took off shortly around the time Brooks' paper was published. Moreover, paging through the references returned by Google Books 1 shows the expression became very common in computer science literature, as that subject is found in more than its fair share of the results.

1my apologies for any ad that shows up, which might be addressing a very different problem altogether.

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In this context,

Silver bullet: A simple and seemingly magical solution to a complicated problem; a simple remedy for a difficult or intractable problem

  • There is no single silver bullet that will solve all the problems of Bay Area schools

So, in your case, something is being sold as a simple solution to an intricate problem.

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In folklore, only a silver bullet could kill a werewolf, witch or other monster.

It's idiomatic for any straightforward solution that's perceived to be extremely effective, but often this may not be the case.

In fact, it's also the title of a well-known paper on complexity and software engineering.

From Wikipedia:

"No Silver Bullet — Essence and Accidents of Software Engineering" is a widely discussed paper on software engineering written by Fred Brooks in 1986. Brooks argues that "there is no single development, in either technology or management technique, which by itself promises even one order of magnitude [tenfold] improvement within a decade in productivity, in reliability, in simplicity." He also states that "we cannot expect ever to see two-fold gains every two years" in software development, like there is in hardware development.

Brooks makes a distinction between accidental complexity and essential complexity, and asserts that most of what software engineers now do is devoted to the essential, so shrinking all the accidental activities to zero will not give an order-of-magnitude improvement. Brooks advocates addressing the essential parts of the software process. While Brooks insists that there is no one silver bullet, he believes that a series of innovations attacking essential complexity could lead to significant (perhaps greater than tenfold in a ten-year period) improvements.

The article, and Brooks's own reflections on it, "'No Silver Bullet' Refired," can be found in the anniversary edition of The Mythical Man-Month.

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