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For What It’s Worth: Silver Bullet

For What It's Worth MAIN

Besides being the calling card of a storied masked vigilante, a silver bullet has come to be known as a simple sweeping solution to an all-but unsolvable puzzle.

From the time of Hippocrates, the precious metal has been credited with healing properties. Its magic included darker powers when applied to weapons. The oracle of Delphi advised the king of Macedonia to fight with silver spears, according to the poet Horace.

References to silver bullets began appearing in 18th century European literature, and by 19th century novels, silver bullets were the go-to ammo to ward off monsters—particularly werewolves.

In the 1930s, the Lone Ranger, the mysterious hero of radio and then TV Westerns, used only silver bullets. He said they symbolized justice and law and order, harking back to the ancient mythical healing attributes of the metal. (He also happened to have inherited a silver mine and named his horse Silver; Hi-yo!).

For What It’s Worth is an occasional look at the meanings and origins of words and expressions investors may encounter.

The notion of a silver bullet as more than a fatal solution also appears related to a similar term that started to become popular around the time of the Lone Ranger.

Nobel laureate Paul Ehrlich, the father of chemotherapy (whose story was portrayed in the 1940 movie “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet”), used the term Zauberkugel to refer to his quest for a remedy to syphilis. The English translation, “magic bullet,” came to mean a compact, convenient cure-all.

Given the unlikelihood of such miracle medicines, silver bullets typically are mentioned as a reminder that complex problems usually require complex solutions. For instance, when former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellin was asked about revisiting the Fed’s inflation target of 2% a year, she expressed skepticism by saying, “Is there a silver bullet there?”

Joel Dresang is vice president-communications at Landaas & Company.

(initially posted October 23, 2018)

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