Silver bullet (figurative 1945)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jan 10 22:34:46 UTC 2011

Many thanks for all your responses. The examples with Stoker's sacred
bullet, the Lone Ranger, Walter Scott, the Reformation, vampires and
witches are great.

As Joel helpfully notes the OED entry for silver bullet contains a
1678 citation for the literal sense. This date and the OED 1 a.
literal definition are given in the NYT blog post that I linked.
Ascribing magical properties to a silver bullet is part of the
"literal" definition.

The 1945 cite does refer to the claim that a silver bullet can harm or
destroy a supernatural entity (specifically a ghost) when it says
metaphorically that the battleship U. S. S. Pennsylvania has been
"haunting" the Japanese and also states:

They say you can't lay a ghost except with silver bullets. The
Japanese have no silver bullets for the Pennsy.

 However, I do not believe that "silver bullet" is being used in the
"literal" sense in this sentence because the Japanese could have
attacked the U. S. S. Pennsylvania with silver bullets if they thought
this would be an effective strategy. The NYT reporter does not really
believe that an attack using silver bullets would be appropriate for
destroying the "ghost" Pennsy.

The OED figurative sense is: "A simple, miraculous solution to a
complex and difficult problem." The 1945 cite fits this imperfectly
because the battleship poses a difficult problem for the Japanese, but
the solution need not be "miraculous".

When searching for examples of the phrase "dodging silver bullets" a
few months ago I came across an odd example. The story may be
apocryphal but the precious-metal bullets are literal. An 1878
newspaper account about a "red ape" (Red Demon, Mungo) suggests that
the folk-belief in the power of silver bullets (and gold bullets) was
taken seriously by some people at that time in Caratal, Venezuela. The
ape was chained to the wall of a house by a settler named Seiler, and
the populace considered it very dangerous.

Cite: 1878 October 3, Freeborn County Standard, The Monkey Assassin,
Page 1, Column 5, Albert Lea, Minnesota. (NewspaperArchive)

People now took the law into their own hands, but with equally poor
success. The Red Demon seemed to bear a charmed life. He dodged silver
bullets with the greatest ease, and one genius who melted down two
ounces of gold into a slug to make sure of him, had the satisfaction
of seeing Seiler pick the precious missile out of his wall and
purchase rum for himself and raw beef for Mungo with it, just at a
juncture, too, when his credit had collapsed and given rise to a hope
that the ape would starve to death after all.


On Mon, Jan 10, 2011 at 4:22 PM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
> Subject:      Re: Silver bullet (figurative 1945)
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> At 1/10/2011 03:51 PM, Jonathan Lighter wrote:
>>Robert Southey alludes to the vulnerability of an English witch
>>to a silver bullet in his  English Eclogues, "Eclogue VI: The Witch," in his
>>_Poems_, II (Bristol, 1799), p. 221.
> Given John Trumbull's 1772 quotation (OED), it would appear American
> witches were sturdier than English.  Must have been the brisker New
> England climate.
> Joel
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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