Some people hold the irrational belief that one object (or possibly idea) can fix all their problems. For example, someone who is unhappy or anxious might think that smoking is a cure to all their problems.

What's the idiom to describe this belief? I used to know it but it slipped my mind.

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    The title immediately made me think of deus ex machina. But seeing your example it doesn't fit.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Jul 24, 2013 at 22:14
  • Might it be a proverb?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 24, 2013 at 22:52
  • Are you sure it's an idiom? As in, a group of words that have otherwise bad syntax which, as a unit, is assigned to a meaning ("catch as catch can"), or a face-value interpretation that is completely different from the intended and understood meaning ("bought the farm")?
    – Kaz
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 0:55
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    German has the charming term "die eierlegende Wollmilchsau", meaning "the egg-laying, wool and milk-giving sow". One solution for all your problems.
    – waldrumpus
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 12:12
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    Could you clarify/detail your question a bit? There's a lot of perfectly good answers that fit what you describe, but we can't read your mind to determine the exact phrase you have (almost) in mind.
    – hunter2
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 6:31

12 Answers 12


You may be thinking of magic bullet but panacea would also fit.

magic bullet noun
a medicine or other remedy with advanced or highly specific properties:
there’s no magic bullet, and we should just try to eat as varied and well-balanced a diet as possible

panacea noun
a solution or remedy for all difficulties or diseases:
the panacea for all corporate ills
the time-honoured panacea, cod liver oil

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    Also magic wand. See the icons on any popular piece of software. Commented Jul 24, 2013 at 22:20
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    silver bullet Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 1:11
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    I would say silver rather than magic too. The only time I'd heard magic bullet used before seeing this answer was in the context of the Kennedy assassination :P Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 8:05
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    "silver bullet" is a good addition, but it should be noted the connotation and usage does differ. If someone is sick with a serious illness it would not be considered as appropriate to wish you had a "silver bullet" rather than a "magic bullet". The silver bullet phrase is not completely divorced from its origin as the only/best way to kill a werewolf. But obviously there is room to disagree here, as others might have a strong association of aggression more with the other phrase.
    – BrianH
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 16:48
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    I've always heard silver bullet used as a very powerful solution to a specific problem, and magic bullet used in reference to a general solution.
    – WLPhoenix
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 19:16

In addition to "magic bullet" there is "silver bullet", particularly in the phrase "no silver bullet", to mean no quick or easy or complete fix for a problem.

See http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-sil1.htm for a comparison to "magic bullet".


This isn't a phrase, but there is the word panacea which the Oxford Dictionaries define as "a solution or remedy for all difficulties or diseases".

  • Right, that word came to mind, but unfortunately it's not it!
    – ktm5124
    Commented Jul 24, 2013 at 21:59

While the offered answers of panacea and magic bullet both seem to suit, there is also deus ex machina

noun [singular] literature /ˌdeɪəs eks ˈmɑkɪnɑ/ someone or something that solves a situation that seemed impossible to solve in a sudden and unlikely way, especially in a book, play, movie, etc.

This is largely literary, but can be used to describe an implausible solution in other cases.

It literally means god from a machine, referring to the common practice in bad theater of wrapping up a convoluted plot by having a god [usually Olympian] being lowered from by a crane or lifted through a trapdoor onto the stage and saving the beleaugered, issuing an edict or effecting a magical transformation.

  • Are you sure? As someone who never studied Latin, I thought it was more of a 'god from outside the machine', the machinations being the normal story (to which the divine wrapper-upper is otherwise external). I agree with your description of meaning/usage, but are you sure about the etymology?
    – hunter2
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 6:09
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    @hunter2 See merriam-webster.com/dictionary/deus%20ex%20machina
    – bib
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 13:00
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    Thanks. (For the equally lazy: He is exactly right. From Greek first (including the crane!))
    – hunter2
    Commented Jul 28, 2013 at 7:21

Snake oil wiki -Snake oil is an expression that originally referred to fraudulent health products or unproven medicine but has come to refer to any product with questionable or unverifiable quality or benefit.

One source, [...] claims that the name came from the Eastern United States. The Native Americans of New York and Pennsylvania region would rub cuts and scrapes with the petroleum collected from oil seeps that occurred naturally in the area. European settlers observed this habit, and began bottling and selling the substance as a cure-all. The preparation was sold as "Seneca oil" in mid-nineteenth century, after the local tribes. Haubrich claims through mispronunciation this became "Sen-ake-a oil" and eventually "snake oil".

Just what the doctor ordered source - exactly what is required, especially for health or comfort.

Elixir of life free dictionary - a hypothetical substance believed to maintain life indefinitely; once sought by alchemists

A quick fix free dictionary- a quick solution to a problem, especially one which is only temporary

Eureka moment (7/26/2013)

Magic potion FD a drink or draft, esp. one having or reputed to have medicinal, poisonous, or magical powers.

  • I think the word cure-all might be more commonly used than panacea.
    – Drew
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 14:04

If you're looking for a word (not an idiom) that emphasizes the dubious efficacy of a proposed cure-all, a good candidate might be nostrum. Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) offers two definitions for nostrum:

1: a medicine of secret composition recommended by its preparer but usu. without scientific proof of its effectiveness 2: a usu. questionable remedy or scheme: PANACEA ["an audience eager to believe he had found the nostrum for all of society's ills" —Warren Sloat]


How about Swiss knife? Although its use is limited for objects.

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    I've already heard the expression in that meaning. Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 8:05
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    I am trying to help you. If you interpret my advice and tips as following "descriptive" or "prescriptive" school of thought, it means you haven't understood me. The OP has, in any case, NOT accepted anyone's answer. You can tell when he has when a green tick appears. So far the top answer is agreed by 27 users in this community. I'm sorry if your pride has been wounded. It wasn't really my intention.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 8:53
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    I've heard Swiss-army knife used idiomatically to describe a "tool for all situations." While that may not quite fit "solving all problems", IMO its not far enough off to down vote. Link for at least one common usage: c2.com/cgi/wiki?SwissArmyKnife
    – WLPhoenix
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 19:22
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    @WLPhoenix I agree. I was about to say "Swiss Army Knife," although the original answerer said "Swiss Knife." If you're unfamiliar with the concept the pictures here will help illustrate. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swiss_Army_knife ;-)
    – luksan
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 19:22
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    @Mari-LouA, of course it's an idiom. People use "Swiss Army Knife" idiomatically (or at least metaphorically) all the time to refer to a (possibly non-existent) tool or technique which can be applied to many situations.
    – Ladlestein
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 22:56

In software development circles, we call it the "Golden Hammer." The name is related to the aphorism "when your only tool is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail." The Golden Hammer is considered to be an anti-pattern.


A belief in something in spite of evidence to the contrary is a delusion. There is a mental disorder called delusional disorder.

However, a delusion is not specifically a belief a non-working solution, but in any false idea in general.

An object or idea that someone relies on that doesn't necessarily help, but creates some measure or real or perceived support, is called a crutch. (One could have a delusional belief that a crutch, like alcohol, is actually solving problems).

A single-minded preoccupation is a fixation. Applicable psychological terms are idée fixe or monomania. The persistent, irrational belief that some object solves problems could be an example of such.

  • +1 for being the only answer to address the belief in the object's ability rather than the object itself. I feel many of the posts here, my own included, missed the true nature of the question and provided examples of objects that could be a "fix-all" rather than define a person's belief in said objects' ability to "fix-all." Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 16:45

Another possibe idiom you may be looking for is "magical thinking", but its meaning is perhaps too specific for your stated case: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_thinking

Magical thinking is the identification of causal relationships between actions and events, where scientific consensus says that there is none. In religion, folk religion and superstition the correlation posited is between religious ritual, prayer, sacrifice, or the observance of a taboo, and an expected benefit or recompense. In clinical psychology, magical thinking can cause a patient to experience fear of performing certain acts or having certain thoughts because of an assumed correlation between doing so and threatening calamities. Magical thinking may lead people to believe that their thoughts by themselves can bring about effects in the world or that thinking something corresponds with doing it.[1] It is a type of causal reasoning or causal fallacy that looks for meaningful relationships of grouped phenomena between acts and events.

This would apply if someone thinks that smoking makes them more fortunate, or smoking a certain kind of tobacco means they aren't at increased risk for cancers and other ailments.

Where this does not fit is when something does have a real effect, like smoking calming anxiety (it can - though its actually the nicotine withdrawal that is causing or worsening the anxiety itself). But if you think that going to a seminar is going to make your life great, or rubbing the belly of the Buddha is going to help you meet that special someone you've been looking for in life, that's magical thinking.

  • I like this answer. Magical thinking also ties in with the placebo effect and faith healing, both of which involve the irrational (or extrarational) belief in the power of something that objectively has no beneficial chemical properties to cure a physiological ailment.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 17:57

I couldn't say this is exactly idiomatic, being a word I learnt two minutes ago, but you could try catholicon:-

(n) a remedy for all ills; panacea


A more pop-culture based option could be "Easy Button." While the term has been around for some time, the office supply retail outlet Staples made it famous by running several ad campaigns featuring an "Easy Button" that when pressed, would instantly fix any problems.



Edit: After re-reading the question I now realize that my answer describes the object that can fix all the problems, not the belief in the objects ability.

  • Any evidence of this actually being in use? I've never heard of it.
    – hunter2
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 6:26
  • Well, the YouTube link I provided was the national tv spot that ran for a few years... You can also do a Google search for "easy button", and once you get past the first page or two of Staples references, you start to see it in use. That is why I referred to it as a pop culture option, as Staples has sort of taken over the term. Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 15:00
  • Gotcha. Yeah, I didn't follow the Youtube link, but that's what I assumed; I was wondering about use other than Staples advertising. OK, though, duly noted - in use otherwise, maybe somewhat rarely.
    – hunter2
    Commented Jul 28, 2013 at 6:26

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