Waving a magic wand (The language of false solutions)

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by Kate Woodford

I recently wrote about phrasal verbs that we use to describe managing problems. While I was researching this area, I started to think more widely about the language of solutions.  I noticed how many words and phrases there are to describe solutions that, for whatever reason, are not as effective as we might hope.

The first word that comes to mind is panacea. People often say that something is not a panacea for a particular problem, meaning it will not magically cure that problem. The idea here is that the problem is more complicated or varied than people sometimes assume: Technology is not a panacea for all our problems. A phrase with a very similar meaning is silver bullet or its variant magic bullet. Again, a silver/magic bullet is a solution that is too simple or too general for a complicated and varied problem. It is usually used in the phrase ‘There is no silver bullet for…’: The fact is, there is no silver bullet for managing water shortages.

Another way of saying this is magic formula: Sadly, there is no magic formula for success. Staying with the magic theme, people often say that they have no magic wand to fix a particular problem. They also sometimes say they cannot wave a magic wand and solve a problem: I wish I could just wave a magic wand and make the problem go away.

Another phrase in this area is one-size-fits-all. The idea comes from the one-size-fits-all piece of clothing which, as the phrase suggests, fits a person of any size. By analogy, a one-size-fits-all solution can be used for anyone or in any situation. It tends to be used negatively: There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of health care.

A cure-all, meanwhile, is something that people hope will solve any problem or cure any illness. Again, it is usually used to express doubt about a solution or a cure: So is this really the cure-all wonder drug that people are claiming it is? (Note that the phrase ‘wonder drug’ also conveys doubt.)

A solution with a different problem is the quick fix. A quick fix is a solution that seems to be quick and easy but has no permanent benefits: This is not some quick fix. It requires long-term commitment. Likewise, a sticking-plaster approach or solution is a way of dealing with a problem that is only temporary.

Finally, a way of dealing with a problem that is expedient is useful and gives the right result, but is not moral or honest: It might be expedient not to pay him till the work is finished.

17 thoughts on “Waving a magic wand (The language of false solutions)

  1. Sarina Steyn

    Hi, I hope you can help to rewrite the direct speech into the indirect speech. There’s no indication of tense (said or says) “Now, I really love my job. I love the interaction with the tourists, as I learn a lot from their home country. But I don’t see myself doing this forever. It’s a stepping stone for me.”
    Thanks a lot.
    Sarina

  2. Solomon You

    This is very interesting.
    I learn a lot from this site as a migrant.
    I’m in love with the Cambridge Dictionary because it gives me a real feeling of English language.
    Thank you so much.

  3. Mujahed Jadallah

    A very great job indeed, Kate. It’s really informative, too.
    To emphasize the chance of something happening (and sometimes unlikeliness to happen), you could sometimes use the phrase “an open sesame,” as in ‘A degree in English in the UK is an open sesame to a lot of job opportunities, which is not the case in Palestine,’ and ‘there is no such thing as an open sesame to success.’
    In Arabic there is a very similar expression to English ‘magic wand’ which goes ‘magic stick’, and it is used in much the same way as that in English.
    I wish I had a magic wand (‘stick’ in Arabic) and turn your dreams into realities.’

    Mujahed Jadallah

  4. susy dyson. sub prefect of máncora peru

    useful to realize comments that don’t work.
    i’d love other frases that open the mind to find the solutions required !

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