One fell swoop

Posted by The Fallen on January 23, 2002

In Reply to: One fell swoop posted by Bob on January 23, 2002

: : : What is the origin and original meaning of the common phrase "one fell swoop"? "Fell"? Thanks.

: : A fell swoop is a sudden, complete and often unexpected event; over and done with great speed and totality. Why fell? This comes from the 13th century Old French word "fel" meaning "cruel". The speed of a fell swoop is so great as to be regarded as cruel by some. Our word Felon comes from the same source.

: It was my mother's whimsy to make it "one swell foop," which amuses me still, 50 years later. Whatever. From a previous discussion:

: : 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)

As can be gathered from the Macbeth quotation above, the phrase "fell swoop" is an image garnered from falconry. "Swoop" in this idiom seems to be interchangeable with the word "stoop", which is the more technically correct term to describe the dive of a bird of prey.