Imprudent not to expect a silver bullet?

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From Paul Kay, this passage from an email recently sent by the Chair of the UC Berkeley Academic Senate:

As background, the state continues to anticipate a very large deficit this year.  While the Governor's budget did call for restoring approximately $300M in funds cut last year from the UC budget, it would probably not be prudent – in my view – to assume that our budgetary situation for 2010-11 will be better than 2009-10.  In addition, the Governor's proposed constitutional amendment, which called for shifting money to higher education by privatizing the state prison system, has attracted no political support (and a great deal of criticism as a policy proposal).  While UCOP has been apparently working with to develop alternative constitutional amendments, it would again be imprudent not to expect a silver bullet.

As Paul points out, the missing words between with and to ("the Governor's Office"?) suggests that this note was sent in haste, so that the overnegation in the last phrase may be an editing error.

For example, the author might have begun with "it would be prudent not to expect a silver bullet", and then decided to change it to "it would be imprudent to expect a silver bullet", but made only one of the two required changes.

Still, Paul observes, it's also probable that the fog of multiple negation — especially in modal contexts — also played a role.

But there's also something interesting going on with the "silver bullet" metaphor.  Even at Berkeley, I doubt that the author really meant to bring up witches and werewolves. The Lone Ranger doesn't quite fit, either.   But as the Wikipedia article explains,

The term has been adopted into a general metaphor, where "silver bullet" refers to any straightforward solution perceived to have extreme effectiveness. The phrase typically appears with an expectation that some new technology or practice will easily cure a major prevailing problem.

Maybe there's been a merger with Paul Ehrlich's "magic bullet" phrase.  Anyhow, a quick web search shows that there's a lot of talk going around about expected silver bullets, little or none of it from evil supernatural creatures.

[Update — the OED explicitly suggests that the sense "A simple, miraculous solution to a complex and difficult problem" is related to the medical magic bullet phrase, and gives citations back to 1951:

1951 Bedford (Pa.) Gaz. 19 Sept. 1/3 There are those who warn against viewing the atom as a magic weapon… I agree. This is not a silver bullet which can deliver itself or otherwise work military miracles. 1971 Chron.-Telegram (Elyria, Ohio) 18 Mar. 18/4 Drug abuse, as virtually every other major problem, is multicausative and not given to simplistic silver bullet solutions.

I guess it was the misnegation that set me off in the wrong interpretive direction, with a flash of the UC Berkeley Faculty Senate as a gathering of witches and werewolves being warned that "it would be imprudent not to expect a silver bullet".]


  1. Walter Underwood said,

    February 13, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

    This may come from a famous 1987 article by Fred Brooks about complexity in software projects, "No Silver Bullet".

    "The familiar software project, at least as seen by the non-technical manager, has something of this character; it is usually innocent and straightforward, but is capable of becoming a monster of missed schedules, blown budgets, and flawed products. So we hear desperate cries for a silver bullet–something to make software costs drop as rapidly as computer hardware costs do."

  2. Carl said,

    February 13, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

    See Fred Brook’s 1986 “No Silver Bullet — Essence and Accidents of Software Engineering” , a classic for computer programmers.

  3. Brian Campbell said,

    February 13, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

    In software engineering circles, Fred Brooks' 1986 essay “No Silver Bullet” is widely known and imitated, and uses “silver bullet” to mean a quick easy solution that will provide drastic improvements in software development efficiency. I don't know how far that usage back before that, but among software engineers, computer programmers, and managers in the software business, that essay is usually what people are referring to when they say “silver bullet.”

  4. Brian said,

    February 13, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

    Though it's pretty clear from reading Brooks's essay that he was repeating a term that was already in common usage among managerial types at the time.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 13, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

    Brooks must have been a subscriber to the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram. I'm struck that a newspaper would use such an obscure and jargony word as "multicausative." Maybe it was in a letter to the editor and thus exempt from copy-editing? It also struck me as odd that "multicausative" would be used to mean "having multiple causes" rather than "causing multiple effects," but the former appears to be standard from the first few pages of google results.

  6. ß said,

    February 13, 2010 @ 10:27 pm

    Wouldn't Paul Ehrlich's Zauberkugel be a reference to the silver bullet from Der Freischütz? Those were not meant to kill werewolves, but to shoot with superhuman precision. Ehrlich's goal was not to kill something otherwise unkillable, but to kill only the bug without affecting the host: "Wir müssen magische Waffen suchen. Wir müssen die Parasiten besiegen, und wenn möglich ausschließlich die Parasiten… Wir müssen chemisch zielen lernen!" (sorry, no citation, but probably in Gesammelte Abhandlungen, 1906)

    [(myl) I imagine that Erhlich had the Freischütz legend in mind, at least, and perhaps specifically von Weber's opera. But those Freikugeln become magic in various ways that (as far as I know) have nothing to do with silver.]

  7. Mark F. said,

    February 13, 2010 @ 10:49 pm

    The use of the silver bullet metaphor might be somehow related to the overnegation. Unlike "magic bullet", "silver bullet" is sort of a "rhetorical negative polarity item" — a key part of its rhetorical function is that it doesn't exist. And it seems like items of that sort tend to confuse our negation processing.

  8. Kylopod said,

    February 14, 2010 @ 7:57 am

    I've noticed that the term "silver bullet" (like the slang use of "kosher") is usually used in negative sense: you much more often hear people talking about what isn't a silver bullet than what is.

  9. Ben said,

    February 14, 2010 @ 10:14 pm

    I agree with the posters above; "Silver Bullet", outside of the werewolf context, has a built-in negative polarity. It's always something that doesn't exist. No amount of negative operators will change that, so mis-negation errors are more likely when that phrase is being used.

    Incidentally, I happened to be watching this speech by President Obama, speaking at MIT about energy innovation:

    At 8:02 he says "We all know there is no silver bullet" [to solve the renewable energy problem].

  10. Kenny Easwaran said,

    February 15, 2010 @ 9:47 pm

    An alternate interpretation, and surely not the interpreted one, would see the California higher education system as some sort of hybrid of human and animal, and it would be imprudent for those involved not to expect the legislature to try to come up with some silver bullet that will finally end higher education in California once and for all.

  11. Mr Punch said,

    February 16, 2010 @ 4:26 pm

    I agree that "silver bullet" is now being used in the better-established sense of "magic bullet" — which was I think popularized in a pharmacological context (Paul Ehrlich and the 1940 biopic). I suspect that lycanthropy is also involved. But in my youth, the principal association of silver bullets was with the Lone Ranger (and another opera entirely).

  12. Melanoman said,

    February 17, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    I think this is a lot more fun if you imagine that the speaker views himself as the target of the silver bullets. In that case, the negation makes perfect sense as written. That metaphor also better fits the political reality.

  13. Dan Milton said,

    February 17, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

    When I was a boy I knew an old man who grew up in Driftwood on the West Branch of the Susquehanna before he enlisted for the Spanish-American War. After sixty five years I've forgotten all the details, but one of the stories he told was about a particular beast (bear? deer?) that could not be shot till the hunter melted down coins and cast a silver bullet. Many of his stories were ones he himself had heard from oldtimers, so it's hard to date, but at some time in the nineteenth century in backwoods Pennsylvania the silver bullet was not just a metaphor.

  14. xyzzyva said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 10:42 pm

    Being a college campus, maybe they were referring to the Silver Bullet, which it would indeed be imprudent not to expect.

  15. Werewolf Words | Wordnik said,

    May 1, 2012 @ 11:08 am

    […] or bring miraculous results.” For more on the silver bullet metaphor, check out this Language Log post from Mark Liberman, and for all things silver, look […]

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