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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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.
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):
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.
In this context,
[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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
A note attached to an 1831 edition of Old Mortality at this point makes the following note:
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):
"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):
A footnote to the song remarks:
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):
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:
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:
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:
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:
Conclusions: The modern understanding of 'silver bullet'
Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995) have this entry for "silver bullet":
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."
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.