In One Fell Swoop

In a news article today about the new US tax bill, the writer said:

In one fell swoop, the Republicans have introduced some of the largest changes…

In one fell swoop is a pretty common phrase, perhaps almost to the point of cliché. But where does it come from, and what exactly does it mean?

The expression, like so many more, comes from Shakespeare. It’s spoken in Macbeth by ***spoiler alert*** Macduff when he discovers that his family have been killed:

Macd. [] All my pretty ones?
Did you say All? Oh Hell-Kite! All?
What, All my pretty Chickens, and their Damme
At one fell swoope?

Here, Macduff is comparing the murder to the actions of a bird of prey (hell-kite) killing a nest of birds (It doesn’t sound like the kind of metaphor you’d use on learning your family had been murdered. Or, in fact, that you’d use a metaphor at all, just saying…).

The swoop part is pretty straightforward: it’s the movement of the bird. But what does fell mean?

And yes by the way, the word is fell, and not foul. If you’d always thought it was one foul swoop, don’t worry. I can assure you that you’re not alone. Even I, when I was young, though it was foul. And that’s understandable because, I’ll ask again, what does fell mean?

It’s a now quite old-fashioned adjective meaning cruel (so it makes sense in the context for poor Macduff). The word can probably be traced back to the Medieval Latin fello, meaning villain (which is also probably the source of the word felon). J.R.R Tolkien fans might remember the fell beasts from The Lord of the Rings: the terrible winged beasts ridden by the Nazgûl after they lose their horses.

The expression has lost some of its original negative meaning, now often referring to a swift, sudden action that may or not may not be cruel. And that makes sense, considering most normal people don’t know what fell means (except of course as a verb, as in I nearly fell off my chair when I learned what fell means). Though for plenty of those affected by the tax changes, it’ll be quite a fell swoop.

I still keep thinking back to poor Macduff, so traumatised by his loss that he could only express himself in the form of spontaneous poetic metaphor. I feel like Shakespeare came up with the expression one day while on a walk, and seeing a kite swoop in to kill some prey. He then tried to find a situation he could use it in, and Macduff’s family fit the bill. Given how many words and phrases he introduced to the English language, I’m sure that happened to him a lot.

9 thoughts on “In One Fell Swoop

  1. Interesting. Given the evolution of this word, I can see where “to fell a tree” came along. always when I thought of a fell swoop, I thought of an axe clipping off a tree with one mighty blow. You’ve probably covered wrecked and wreaked in another article; these are two other words people often mix up.

    Shakespeare did indeed enrich the English language as no one person ever has before or since. He coined a lot of his own phrases, likely, and collected or adapted a lot of then-current expressions from the common folks and put them in print for the first time. If I err not, he was one of the first writers of the newly developed English language.

    (I got a laugh one day when I read about a new mystery series, the hero of which is a bookseller who owns a book shop in Oxford in the 1360s. Talk about anacronisms!)

    Liked by 1 person

      • Ha! And wrote it in Latin or French, the languages of that era, which most of the common people couldn’t read. In fact, most of the common people couldn’t read any language. Chaucer published his Canterbury Tales, the first book published in English, at the end of 1300.

        It would have been before Columbus discovered America, so the geography section would have been limited. 🙂 And a decade or two after the Bubonic plague ravaged Europe. People were fearful and superstitious, the Catholic Church was in rigid control of learning. The priests would have been very “observant” of book writers and sellers.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Fell, in this sense, comes from the same root as “felony” (a serious crime) and can be traced back to Old French “felon” meaning a wicked person. It now means something along the lines of “terrible, evil, ferocious”. It is archaic, only used in this one expression (one fell swoop) and by fantasy authors such as Tolkien.

    Fell, in the sense of cutting down a tree, stems from old Dutch, old English, and Old German vellen, fellan, fällen and is associated with the verb “fall”.

    Fell as in a hillside is from the Norse fjell meaning “hill”.

    3 similar sounding words from different roots and not linked.

    Foul is from old Norse fúll, meaning dirty.


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