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Bullet Points

‘‘THERE IS NO magic bullet for the situation in Iraq,’’ said former secretary of state James Baker, head of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, at a Houston gathering earlier this month.

A couple of days later, at a Washington press conference, cochairman Lee Hamilton echoed Baker’s warning that the group’s forthcoming report would not offer a quick fix for the war. ‘‘There is no silver bullet,’’ he said.

Magic bullet or silver bullet? asked Bob Larkin of Beverly in an e-mail. ‘‘I remember the Lone Ranger used silver bullets,’’ he said, and he recalled that the ‘‘magic bullet’’ was once a cure for syphilis. But how, he wondered, did those different senses evolve into 21st-century political jargon?

Both bullets, it turns out, have their origins in folklore. German folktales, the Oxford English Dictionary explains, often include ‘‘magic bullets of supernatural accuracy.’’ Weber’s 1821 opera, ‘‘Der Freischutz,’’ is based on one such tale of bullets purchased from the devil (for the usual price) and programmed, predictably, to misfire.

But the magic bullet of 20th-century medicine and metaphor—‘‘An idealized therapeutic agent that is highly specific for the pathogen or disorder concerned,’’ in the OED’s definition—arrived in English as a translation from the German zauberkugel. That’s the word Paul Ehrlich, Nobel Prize-winning immunologist, used in 1907 to describe the kind of drugs he wanted to develop.

‘‘Magic bullet’’ wasn’t the only possible translation: In the first Ehrlich paper the OED cites, the word is rendered as ‘‘charmed bullets.’’ But magic bullet was the one that stuck. Paul de Kruif’s 1926 best-seller, ‘‘The Microbe Hunters,’’ spread the word of Ehrlich’s ‘‘magic bullet’’ to a popular audience. And in the 1940 movie, ‘‘Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet,’’ the miracle-cure sense of the term was firmly embedded in the national vocabulary.

The silver bullet, like the magic bullet, shows up in European folklore in the 18th century, says British etymologist Michael Quinion. Werewolves were considered servants of the devil, Quinion writes at his World Wide Words website (, and could only be killed by silver bullets. ‘‘Basically, what a stake through the heart was to a vampire, a silver bullet was to a werewolf.’’ Other sources say silver bullets are essential if you need to dispatch witches, ghosts, or the devil.

The silver bullet, however, took an odd detour in the first half of the 20th century, as shorthand not for magic but for money. In the early days of World War I, Lloyd George, the British chancellor of the exchequer, stressed the importance ‘‘not merely of men, but of cash’’ to the war effort, according to a New York Times report. ‘‘We have won with a silver bullet before,’’ he said.

And in 1936, during the Chinese civil war, the Times reported on Chiang Kai-Shek’s easy victory over the Southwestern forces: His ‘‘prompt show of strength and his liberal distribution of what the Chinese call ’silver bullets’—to an estimated value of several millions of dollars...sapped the loyalty of many of the Southern generals.’’

During the Korean War, President Truman nixed the suggestion of offering ‘‘silver bullets’’ as bribery to Chinese troops—that is, dropping leaflets promising rewards to any who turned themselves in.

The Times reporter noted, though, that Truman seemed unaware of this sense of ‘‘silver bullet.’’ And no wonder—this was 1951, and the Lone Ranger, a radio regular since the ’30s and now a TV hero, was well embarked on his mission of rescuing the silver bullet from realpolitik. Thanks to the masked man (and his trusty steed, Silver), the silver bullet—untouched, this time around, by Satan—was restored, in our collective consciousness, to the realm of legend.

By the mid-20th century, then, both magic bullet and silver bullet were household words. Their extended sense of ‘‘miracle cure’’ wasn’t yet widespread, but Google Print turns up a couple of early examples:

In a 1950 report, the president’s Council of Economic Advisers warns, ‘‘Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet—no simple solution that would simultaneously guarantee countries access to global capital flows and eliminate the risk of a crisis of confidence.’’

And a 1955 statement by the American Correctional Association notes, ‘‘It has been characteristic of this seek some ’magic bullet,’ some solution [to crime] that is quick, easy and inexpensive.’’

Silver bullet, magic bullet: One kills werewolves, one cures VD, but in figurative use they’re the same sort of remedy: Powerful, fast-acting, and always in short supply.

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