i am not sure that means what you think it means (origins of metaphors in development, german folk-stories edition)

thanks to having professors who are curious about the origins and use of phrases, i have recently had the occasion to consider two phrases in common use — and likely mis-use. these would be hilarious mid-understandings as the basis of a sit-com or, as here, folklore. as the basis of policy, not so much.

1. magic bullets.

to be sure, i learned about this one because i went to see the black rider, not because i can claim a love of german opera or a deep understanding of german folklore, though both would be good life goals. the underlying story of ‘magic bullets’ – from the German freischuetz (marksman) folk-narrative – is a faustian bargain in which someone needing to prove hunting prowess takes n special bullets from a stranger, n-1 of which will do what the bargainer needs and 1 of which is under the control of the devil. oops.

why ehrlich would choose ‘magic bullet’ to represent the quest of his research, i am not quite sure. in the end, magic bullets may be a fairly apt metaphor for much that we actually do in public health (and development — targeted, purposive actions in one area with unintended consequences in another) but as a description of what we are trying to do, it seems less desirable.

silver bullets (from ancient Greek mythology) seem the slightly more appropriate aspirational metaphor (also good for killing werewolves); however, maybe this whole confusion with the unintended consequences and deal-with-the-devil thing is a good reason to drop the idea of looking for single causes &/or solutions?

or else, we need to have charlie daniels’s fiddle skills involved in a whole lot more of our work.

2. pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps.

bootstraps are those loops on the back of your boots that help you pull them on. using them to pull yourself up, on the other hand, is apparently physically impossible (“for a force to accelerate an object it must come from outside it. you can’t pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. anyone who says you can is literally wrong.”).

which is why it made for such a hilarious story as originally told — it’s an adynaton (new word of the day!).  the original version came in one of two forms. either from tales of davy crockett who, along with other feats, was said to have pulled himself over a fence by his bootstraps or from the german tales of baron muenchhausen‘s adventures, who described how he fell into a swamp and lifted himself out by pulling on either his ponytail or his bootstraps. if you watch ‘house’ or are just otherwise savvy, you’ll recognize that his name also serves as the  basis of the disease of fictitious disorders.

there may well be counterparts to these stories in other literary traditions — i’d be happy to hear about them!!!

(the end of one of the referenced posts also reviews daily show’s coverage of candidates out-bootstrapping one another (not an actual over-the-fence, out-of-the-swamp competition, although that would be amazing and i would like to suggest it in place of one of the debates). surely it owes something to monty python’s four yorkshiremen sketch, which culiminates with, “right. i had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before i went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay the mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing ‘hallelujah.'”)

(thanks to guenther fink & josh salomon for raising these issues, as well as the magic of wikipedia)

Published by hlanthorn

ORCID ID: 0000-0002-1899-4790

4 thoughts on “i am not sure that means what you think it means (origins of metaphors in development, german folk-stories edition)

  1. a new (to me) quote that is relevant, from Naudet 1999, via the 2012 APPP report synthesized by david booth, ‘development as a collective action problem.’ “one major difficulty has been that to give coherence to its own efforts, the development assistance business needs pithy, upbeat formulations that simplify complexity. it likes and needs panaceas, the silver bullets that can be counted upon to kill the vampire or werewolf when all else has failed. it is a familiar critique of the development enterprise that it is supply-driven, searching not for solutions to problems but for problems to which to attach known solutions” (p. 65).


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