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Googlespooked

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  October 30, 2006 10:49 AM

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When you've just published a column citing results from Google's Book Search, the last thing you want to see in your in-box is an e-mail with the subject line "Beware of Google Book Search." But there it was, first thing yesterday morning: a warning from Ben Zimmer, editor of American dictionaries for Oxford University Press and a crack word sleuth, that Google's document dates were probably off by decades.

My quotes illustrating "silver bullet" and "magic bullet," which Google dated 1950 and 1955, are really from about 1999 and 1986, Zimmer estimates.

But finding that out is a chore. "There's no easy way to get the dates until Google gets its act together with these government documents," he says. All you can do is search the text for various dates, hoping to find a "snippet view" that includes a reliable clue. "It's particularly silly because these documents should all be public domain," says Zimmer; there's no reason to limit them to the tiny snippet view format.

So, if "silver bullet" and "magic bullet" weren't interchangeable images in the '50s, when did they reach that point? My now-earliest "magic bullet" in the non-medical sense comes from a 1965 New York Times story: "The good showing of the economy last year evidently suggests to [President Lyndon Johnson] that tax reductions are a sort of magic bullet for the economy."

"Silver bullet" is more elusive. It's not clear what Times book reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt meant when, in 1968 and again in 1973, he called William F. Buckley Jr. "the silver bullet of American conservatism." But a Washington Post report in 1977 quotes a former FDA official, talking about the contentious process of drug approval, who said there were "no magic solutions, no silver bullets" to quell controversy.

The search continues – though this time, with a healthy dose of Googleskepticism.


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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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