One fell swoop

Posted by ESC on September 14, 2002

In Reply to: One fell swoop posted by Ed Stansell on September 14, 2002

: You don't list a meaning for "one fell swoop".
: The definition of fell, is deadly. One fell swoop means one deadly stroke.
: ES

But the expression is in the archives.

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).

From the archives:

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.