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Re: Fell

Posted by ESC on July 25, 2003

In Reply to: Your Hobby posted by Lewis on July 25, 2003

: : Meanings and Origins gives for this phrase:
: : "Origin
: : From Shakespeare's Macbeth.

: : MACDUFF: [on hearing that his family and servants have all been killed]
: : He has no children. All my pretty ones?
: : Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
: : What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
: : At one fell swoop?

: : The kite referred to is a hunting bird, like the Red Kite, which was common in England in Tudor times. The 'fell swoop' (or stoop as is now said) is the rapid descent made by the bird when capturing prey."

: :
: : I think it's not clear from this explanation that the word "fell" has nothing whatever to do with the kite "falling" upon its prey. My old Webster's 2nd Unabridged gives "swoop: to descend swiftly with closed wings, as a hawk [etc]"; but "fell", from Old French 'fel', means "cruel; barbarous; fierce [etc]" as in 'While we devise fell tortures for thy faults.'

: drat!
: I was about to appear all knowledgeable about birds of prey "stooping" and making the same observation about "fell" meaning evil/cruel - "fell purpose" would have been my choice example.

: All I can add is that this kind of interest must be a "hobby" with you. The "hobby" being pretty much the smallest bird of prey used for hunting and a bird not restricted to the nobility.
: it is interesting to note that each rank of the peerage confers the right to use a different bird of prey when hunting.
: I don't have the ranks handy, but the general trend is for size to increase with rank.

From the archives under "swoop" (look there for more discussion):

ONE FELL SWOOP - ".simply means one fierce, sudden onslaught, of the kind a hawk might make when swooping down on a defenseless small animal. 'Fell' is a word rarely met outside of this particular phrase. It has no connection with 'fall.' This 'fell' comes from the Anglo-Saxon word 'fel,' from which we also get 'felon,' a person guilty of a major crime." From the "Morris Dictionary of Words and Phrase Origins" by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 1977, 1988).

Shakespeare used the expression in Macbeth (Act 4, Scene 3): MacDuff: He has no children. - All my pretty ones. Did you say all? - O hell-kite! - All? What, all my pretty chickens, and their dam, At one fell swoop? ".MacDuff uses 'fell' in a sense that is now rare - as an adjective meaning 'fierce, deadly.' King Macbeth, who knows that Macduff is conspiring to overthrow him, had ordered the murder of Macduff's wife, children, and servants. This is the 'fell swoop'" Macduff likens Macbeth to a 'hell-kite' (the kite is a vicious bird of prey in the falcon family)." From "Brush Up on Your Shakespeare!" By Michael Macrone (Gramercy Books, New York, 1999).