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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

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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
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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

[Source: Collins Dictionaries]

Example: "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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The tangential role of werewolves in the expression 'sliver bullet'

Most of the discussions of where "silver bullet" comes from point to the legendary ability of silver bullets to kill werewolves. The word bullet in English goes back to 1579 and werewolf to "bef[ore] 12c" (according to Merriam-Webster), so there is a considerable space between the emergence of werewolves and the emergence of silver bullets as their bane. Wikipedia's article on werewolves reports that the possibility of using silver weaponry to destroy lycanthropes was first raised in nineteenth-century German folklore, and specific suitability of silver bullets for this purpose arose only in 1935:

Most modern fiction describes werewolves as vulnerable to silver weapons and highly resistant to other injuries. This feature appears in German folklore of the 19th century. The claim that the Beast of Gévaudan, an 18th-century wolf or wolf-like creature, was shot by a silver bullet appears to have been introduced by novelists retelling the story from 1935 onwards and not in earlier versions.

The Wikipedia article on silver bullets seems less critical about the possible anachronistic identification of a silver bullet in the story of the Beast of Gévaudan, but it offers a more detailed identification of the appearance of a silver bullet in German folklore:

  • The idea of the werewolf's supposed vulnerability to silver probably dates back to the legend of the Beast of Gévaudan, in which a gigantic wolf is killed by Jean Chastel wielding a gun loaded with silver bullets.

  • In the Brothers Grimm fairy-tale of The Two Brothers, a bullet-proof witch is shot down by silver bullets, fired from a gun.

Here is how the crucial excerpt from "The Two Brothers" (in the Margaret Hunt/James Stern translation of The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales for Pantheon Books) describes the incident:

Then he [one of the brothers, a huntsman] looked up, and the self-same witch was sitting in the tree. Said he: "If you are cold, come down, little old mother, and warm yourself." She answered: "No, your animals will bite me." But he said: "They will not hurt you." Then she cried: "I will throw down a wand to you, and if you smite them with it they will do me no harm." When the huntsman heard that, he had no confidence in the old woman, and said: "I will not strike my animals. Come down or I will fetch you you." Then she cried: "What do you want? You shall not touch me." But he replied: "If you do not com, I will shoot you." Said she: "Shoot away, I do not fear your bullets!" Then he aimed, and fired at her, but the witch was proof against all leaden bullets, and laughed shrilly and cried: "You shall not hit me." The huntsman knew what to do, tore three silver buttons off his coat, and loaded his gun with them, for against them her arts were useless, and when he fired she fell down at once with a scream.

A couple of details are noteworthy here. First, the silver bullets are in fact silver buttons. Second, though the witch's arts protect her against leaden bullets, silver bullets are not her only weakness; eventually the brothers destroy her by casting her into a fire.


Walter Scott and John Howie

The Brothers Grimm published the first volume of their Nursery and Household Tales in 1812. Christine Ammer, The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés (2006), reprinted as The [Skyhorse] Dictionary of Clichés (2013) has this interesting entry for silver bullet:

silver bullet A highly accurate projectile of death or destruction. Sir Walter Scott may have been the first to use the idea of a literal silver bullet in Lockhart (1808), "I have only hopes that he will be shot with a silver bullet." The term caught on in in the first half of the 1900s because the popular western hero of the radio program, The Lone Ranger, used a silver bullet. During the Korean War an antiaircraft shell that hit precisely on target was called a "silver bullet," By the late 1990s the term was being used figuratively, as in, "We're hoping our new software will be the silver bullet to put the company on the map."

This entry suggests that Scott was first to use "silver bullet" in a way that attributed special (and perhaps magical) powers to silver bullets. Unfortunately, the Ammer reference appears to be erroneous in two significant ways. First, Scott didn't write a book called Lockhart in 1808. Instead, John Lockhart wrote a work called Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott in 1908, and in the course of volume 2 of those memoirs he reported this excerpt from a letter from Scott to George Ellis:

But, oh! Ellis, these cursed, double cursed news [victory by Napoleon at the Battle of Somosierra in November 1808, have sunk my spirits so much, that I am almost at disbelieving a Providence. God forgive me! But I think some evil demon has been permitted, in the shape of this tyrannical monster whom God has sent on the nations visited in his anger. I am confident he is proof against lead and steel, and have only hopes that he may be shot with a silver bullet, or drowned in the torrents of blood that he delights to shed.

Nevertheless this letter was written by Walter Scott on December 13, 1808, so the notion of silver bullets having special powers against demonic forces evidently existed in Great Britain before the Brothers Grimm published their book of fairy Tales (in German) in 1812. Scott returns to this idea in his novel Old Mortality (1816), describing the Battle of Killiecrankie on July 27, 1689, in which John Graham, 1st Viscount Dundee and 7th Laird of Claverhouse led an army loyal to King James against a Presbyterian Covenanter army that supported William of Orange. As we join the action, the Covenanters have decided that Claverhouse is impervious to lead bullets:

"Try him with the cold steel," was the cry at every renewed charge—"powder is wasted on him. Ye might as weel shoot at the Auld Enemy himsell."

A note attached to an 1831 edition of Old Mortality at this point makes the following note:

PROOF AGAINST SHOT GIVEN BY SATAN.

The belief of the Covenanters that their principal enemies, and Claverhouse in particular, had obtained from the Devil a charm which rendered them proof against leaden bullets, led them to pervert even the circumstances of his death.

The note goes on to cite this comment from John Howie, "The Judgement and Justice of God Exemplified; or, A Brief Historical Account of the Wicked Lives and Miserable Deaths of Some of the Most Remarkable Apostates and Bloody Persecutors in Scotland from the Reformation till after the Revolution," appended to Howie's Biographia Scoticana, third edition (1796):

He [Claverhouse] was always staunch to Popery ; and when the convention met at Edinburgh, he went off with some horse to the north, and raised the clauships for James's interest ; where he shifted from place to place, till June 13 1689, that he cam to a pitched engagement with General Mackay, on the braes of Gillicrankie, on the water of Trumble. The battle was very bloody, and by Mackay's third fire, Claverhouse fell, of whom historians give little account; but it has been said for certain, that his own waiting-servant, taking a resolution to rid the world of this truculent bloody monster, and knowing he had proof of lead, shot him with a silver button he had before taken off his own coat for that purpose. However, he fell, and with him Popery, and King James's interest in Scotland.

"The Judgement and Justice of God Exemplified" was also appended to the first (1775) and second (1781) editions of Biographia Scoticana, but I haven't been able to find those earlier editions to see whether they include the quoted language as well. At any rate, the "silver button" comment is certainly recorded no later than 1796.

The same belief about silver bullets had jumped the Atlantic Ocean by 1806, as we see in the lyrics to a long song (to the tune of "Yankee Doodle") called "The Country Lovers, &c." in Thomas Fessenden, Original Poems (Philadelphia, 1806):

And how a witch in shape of owl/Did steal her neighbour's geese, sir,/And turkies too, and other fowl,/When people did not please her./Yankee doodle, &c.

And how a man, one dismal night,/Shot her, with silver bullet,/And then she flew straight out of sight,/As fast as she could pull it./Yankee doodle &c.

A footnote to the song remarks:

There is a tale among the ghost-hunters, In New England, that silver bullets will be fatal to witches, when those of lead would not avail.


Oates's Plot and the earliest supernatural interpretations

Earlier still is this allusion to the special powers of silver bullets in Thomas Ward, Englands Reformation, From the Time of King Henry the VIIIth to the End of Oates's Plot (1710):

/He claps the Butt end to his Shoulder,/Of Murthring Musquet, fill'd with Powder,/Shuts his Left Eye, and with his Right,/Like Dex'trous Gunner takes his Sight;/When, just as he was taking Aim/In happy time to Memory came,/That yet he had not Loaded Gun/With Bullet, as he shou'd have done;/The counter-charming Silver Bullet/He searches for 'tween Lips and Gullet,/For in his Mouth he'd wisely hid it/To have it ready when he needed,/But found it not: For lucky Chance,/Which still preserv'd the Sovereign Prince,/Had, none knows how, Convey'd it thence./This Bullet, as Learn'd Titus said,/Was of the Lunar-Metal made,/Cause champed Silver Kills stone dead/Such as are Musquet-proof 'gainst Lead.

Ward is here describing the fictitious plot to murder King Charles II in 1678, detailed in "The Memoirs of Titus Oates" (1685). The (hostile) reporter of Oates's Memoirs mentions silver bullets twice in connection with the plot:

Now we are to know likewise who those two Persons were that were thus set to work, viz. Two poor Servants and Retainers to the Romish Priests, and two Persons who had been before engaged in the same Design, and had dog'd the King (by Oates's own Oath) from the year Seventy to that very day, with screwed [that is, rifled] Guns and Silver Bullets to do the same Execution, and were two such wretched Fools at so desperate a Piece of Service, that one Time their Flint was loose, another Time their Gun was charged with all Bullets and no Powder, another Time with no Powder in the Pan, and another Time with all Powder and no Bullets: ...

...

... Neither are we to reflect, how it is utterly impossible to shoot a Silver Bullet out of a screwed Gun, Silver being too hard a Metal ever to be discharged without tearing the Gun all to Pieces.

The trial transcript provided in The Tryals of William Ireland, Thomas Pickering, and John Grove; for Conspiring to Murder the King (1678) includes these exchanges:

Mr. Finch, What do you know of any attempts to kill the King at St. James Park?

Mr. Oates, I saw Pickering and Grove several times walking in the Park together with their Screwd Pistols, which were longer than ordinary Pistols, and shorter than some Carbines. They had Silver Bullets to shoot with and Grove would have had the Bullets to be Champt, for fear that if he should Shoot, if the Bullets were Round, the Wound that might be given might be Cured.

Oates doesn't explain the reason for the bullets' being silver, but Ward in his poem three decades later is in no doubt.

Earlier still is the statement attributed by a history of The Life of Oliver Cromwell (1760) to Scots who were allied against Oliver Cromwell and who reacted in shock to his successful capture of Edinburgh castle on December 24, 1650:

The subduing of this place was so unexpected by several, that the Scots cried out, "That Cromwell took it only by silver bullets."

Here, however, the term "silver bullets" suggests not supernaturally effective weaponry but bribery of the commanders of the castle's defense.

Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, fifth edition (1961), lists a somewhat similar slang meaning of "silver bullets" during World War I:

silver bullets. 'Money contributed to the war loans' : journalistic coll[oquialism] verging on j[argon] : 1916–18.


Conclusions: The modern understanding of 'silver bullet'

Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995) have this entry for "silver bullet":

silver bullet n phr by 1808 A very effective, quasi-magical agent, remedy, etc: ... Stokovich looked on Kennedy as his "silver bullet" his absolute best man...—Carsten Stroud/ No single silver bullet is going to do the job—Mesa [Arizona] Tribune (reflecting an ancient belief that silver weapons can conquerany foe, found, for example, in the Delphi Oracle's advice to Philip of Macedon, "With silver weapons you may conquer the world"}

This definition is noteworthy for recognizing (as Ammer's definition almost a decade later does not) that the days when "silver bullet" meant only a magically powerful destructive weapon are over. Somehow, in recent decades the term has come to mean something very similar to "magic wand" or "all-healing remedy."


Conclusions

How did a witch-defeating silver bullet come to mean a panacea? It's difficult to say, since the new meaning emerged happened so recently and so rapidly, but I suspect that the change followed the path of evolution suggested in the Chapman & Kipfer definition—from especially lethal munition to very effective agent (of any kind) to quasi-magical remedy.

The final point I want to mention here is that, as far as reference works are concerned "silver bullet" remains predominantly a U.S. English idiom. Whereas both Ammer and Chapman & Kipfer have entries for the term, neither the Cambridge Dictionary of Idioms (1998) nor John Ayto, Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, third edition (2009) mention it at all. This at least raises the possibility that the Lone Ranger, with his horse Silver and his silver bullets, may have had more influence on the emergence of the phrase "silver bullet" in popular culture than all the werewolves in London.

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I bow to your research. –  Mynamite Aug 12 at 9:48

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