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Re: One Fell Swoop

Posted by Bob on February 10, 2000

In Reply to: Re: One Fell Swoop posted by Bruce Kahl on February 10, 2000

: : Does anyone know the orign of " one fell swoop"? I've searched but can't find the answer.

: The phrase stems from a passage in Macbeth. Macduff has just been told that his wife and children have been killed:

: All my pretty ones?
: Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?

: What, all my pretty chickens and their dam

: At one fell swoop?

: (Macbeth IV.iii.216ff)

: Macduff is speaking metaphorically, with Macbeth as the bird of prey ("hell-kite") and his wife and children as chickens. Fell means 'fierce; cruel; savage; deadly', and swoop is just 'an act of swooping, as by a bird of prey' (and this passage is the first use of swoop in that sense in English), so the line literally means 'in one fierce pounce'.

: The line began to be used figuratively to mean 'by as if by one blow; all at once; all together', which is now the only meaning; the literal sense has been largely forgotten.

: The word fell in this sense, now rare or archaic, comes from the same Old French word that gives us the English word felon. Swoop is a variant of the Old English word that gives us the modern word sweep.

I remember Henley's "...in the fell clutch of circumstance..." Is that the same use of "fell?" I can't recall any other use of the word.