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Re: Fell swoop

Posted by R. Berg on July 26, 2003

In Reply to: The problem is at the 'Meanings/origins' page posted by Peter on July 26, 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).

:
: ESC's point is very well taken, that it's always useful to search the archives before making a new post that just goes over well-trodden ground repetitiously. I'm a new visitor to the site, and the basic rule of any discussion group--to first investigate, and think a while, before posting--hadn't occurred to me until after I'd hit the Submit button. Indeed, I was abashed to find quite an extensive history of discussion of this phrase in the various archives.

: But I'm still bothered by the wording of the "official" entry in the site's 'Meanings and origins of phrases and sayings'. I would submit that most visitors to this fascinating website probably just do a quick search of their particular phrase at that section of the site, and never come to this Discussion forum at all; and I feel the "official" entry for "At one fell swoop" is misleading, and should be clarified on that entry page.

: It seems to me there are two different questions that ought to be addressed, not only here in the discussion area, but also at that 'Meanings' page: First, since one of the words is itself archaic, and another had in Elizabethan usage a much more specific meaning than now, what do they mean individually? And second, what is the modern connotation of the phrase as it is actually used colloquially?

: The Morris parsing "one fierce, sudden onslaught, of the kind a hawk might make when swooping down on a defenseless small animal" is much clearer than the given explanation "the 'fell swoop' (or stoop as is now said) is the rapid descent made by the bird when capturing prey," because it's only the single word 'swoop' that carries the meaning of 'the rapid descent'; including the word 'fell' here in this statement only serves to confuse the issue.

: I think in a sense the most important single word in the phrase 'at one fell swoop' in its modern connotation is, somewhat surprisingly, the word 'one'--a single and all-encompassing event, of pretty much any kind. I'm curious to know whether discussion participants think the present colloquial use of the phrase requires the concept of a strike or blow, or onslaught, etc, from the word 'swoop'; and even if so, whether there's still any special sense of cruelty or ferocity, from the word 'fell'. And, does the phrase contain any connotation of a downward movement, either from the 'swoop' or from the false folk etymology of 'fell'?

: Lewis's contribution about falconry is fascinating--can any authority be provided for the assertion that "each rank of the peerage confers the right to use a different bird of prey when hunting"?

: Off the subject, I can never help being amused by people entirely missing the desperate irony in the title of Anne Sexton's book of poetry "All My Pretty Ones", taken from the same Macbeth quotation--I don't see any prior discussion of this as a catchphrase, but I've heard it used as one.

Only the site owner can change a Meanings and Origins entry. Sometimes he does change one in response to something posted here.

My impression about the current understanding of "one fell swoop" is that the phrase has lost much of its negativity. People will use it to describe any action that affects many entities in the same way at once, as "with one stroke" is used. The ideas of evil and of downward movement have evaporated from it.