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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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.