At one fell swoop


What's the meaning of the phrase 'At one fell swoop'?

‘At one fell swoop’ means ‘suddenly; in a single action’.

What's the origin of the phrase 'At one fell swoop'?

‘At one fell swoop’ is one of those phrases that we may have picked up early in our learning of the language and probably worked out its meaning from the context in which we heard it, without any clear understanding of what each word meant. Most native English speakers could say what it means but, if we look at it out of context, it doesn’t appear to make a great deal of sense.

That lack of understanding of the meaning of the words in the phrase is undoubtedly the reason that this is often misspelled, for example, ‘at one fail swoop’, or even, with more justification as it might be thought to relate to birds, ‘one fowl swoop’. It isn’t difficult to also find examples of ‘one foul swoop’. ‘Stoop’ is sometimes substituted for ‘swoop’ in all of the above variants, again drawing on avian imagery.

So, what’s a ‘fell’? We use the word in a variety of ways: to chop, as in fell a tree; a moorland or mountain, like those in the northern UK; the past tense of fall, as in ‘he fell over’. None of those seems to make sense in this phrase and indeed the ‘fell’ here is none of those. It’s an old word, in use by the 13th century, that’s now fallen out of use other than in this phrase, and is the common root of the term ‘felon’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘fell’ as meaning ‘fierce, savage; cruel, ruthless; dreadful, terrible’, which is pretty unambiguous.

Shakespeare either coined the phrase, or gave it circulation, in Macbeth, 1605:

MACDUFF: [on hearing that his family and servants have all 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?

The kite referred to is a hunting bird, like the Red Kite, which was common in England in Tudor times and is now making a welcome return after near extinction in the 20th century. The swoop (or stoop as is sometimes now said) is the rapid descent made by the bird when capturing prey.

Shakespeare used the imagery of a hunting bird’s ‘fell swoop’ to indicate the ruthless and deadly attack by Macbeth’s agents.

In the intervening years we have rather lost the original meaning and use it now to convey suddenness rather than savagery.

Other ‘One‘ phrases:

One-hit wonder
One for the road
One foot in the grave
One over the eight
One sandwich short of a picnic
One small step for man
One stop shop
One swallow doesn’t make a summer

Trend of at one fell swoop in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.