One Fell Swoop

By Simon Kewin

It’s quite common for people to use the phrase “one fowl swoop” (or even “one foul swoop”) when they want to convey the idea of an event taking place all at once and very suddenly. But why do we say this? Is the phrase something to do with birds swooping to the ground in a great rush?

In fact the phrase does have some connection to birds – but both “one fowl swoop” and “one foul swoop” are incorrect. The original phrase is actually “one fell swoop”.

The phrase is an old one. It may have been coined by Shakespeare in 1605, or he may merely have popularised it. In any case, the following lines can be found in Macbeth (Act 4, scene 3). Macduff has just heard that his family 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?

So Shakespeare does employ the image of a bird of prey, a “hell-kite”, swooping to the ground to kill all his “pretty chickens”. But the word he uses is “fell”. This, of course, is still a common word, but Shakespeare is using a rather obscure sense of that word, meaning of terrible evil or ferocity. Its source is the same as felon, a wicked person.

So, “one fell swoop” originally meant a sudden, ferocious attack, although the sense of savagery in the phrase has been lost over the years and people now use it to mean, simply, all at once.

Footnote : the dive of a bird of prey is more accurately referred to as a stoop rather than a swoop as in, for example, “the peregrine falcon can reach speeds of over 200 mph in a stoop”.

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11 Responses to “One Fell Swoop”

  • Dan

    Typo in the title?

  • Dick

    Being attacked by a fowl, especially a bird of prey, sounds pretty foul to me.

    Sorry)

  • Jeff

    What a coincidence–I noticed someone make that same mistake (using fowl) just last week.

  • mrburkemath

    I haven’t seen “one fowl swoop” before, not even as a pun.

    As for stoop, I grew up in a part of Brooklyn where stoop meant your front steps, where you sat with your friends or bounced a ball off.

  • Per Morten Bergvall

    A learned friend of mine – lawyer and all – twisted this around to ‘one swell foop’, which most spell checkers allow to pass without comment.

  • Emma

    I’ve never heard this one misused, but it doesn’t at all surprise me that it is.

    To me, the best example of the word “fell” with that definition is the Fell Beasts in”The Lord of the Rings”, which are these terrible, ferocious creatures that the Ringwraiths ride.

  • James Wendler

    When someone says “one fell swoop” I think Star Wars.

    General Tarkin (Peter Cushing) used that phrase as he gave the order to fire the superlaser on the death star.

  • naomi hamm

    overusage can lead the reader to become bored, put your novel down and pick up another one. don’t disappoint your readers, do not, I repeat used and cliched words. be originial, make up your own when and as often as you can

  • Martin

    Its actually a term born in the days of swordfighting. Often referred to in the writings of the Japanese masters such as Miyomoto Musashi.

    To kill someone in a single downward strike is known as a one fell swoop.

  • Phil

    Are we sure the ‘one fell swoop’ isn’t a reference to something like an axe blow? As in ‘I felled the tree down with one great swing’/’I knocked the tree down with one fell swoop’. Pretty sure Shakespeare was using a pun (with the author’s double meaning as well) which when you read Billy it isn’t that hard to believe.

    Martin’s comment backs up what I’d always thought and is a hell of a lot more logical than reading Shakespeare literally.

  • malcolm

    ONE FELL SWOOP: None of the explanations I have read consider an ancient (Old English) meaning of ‘fell’ — which meant skin or hide, as in fellmonger (a dealer in skins), and a similar origin for ‘swoop’ which meant ‘sweep’, the Saxon swepan meaning to clean or sweep. Thus giving a dirt floor a once-over with a skin on a stick, was doing the job the easy way.
    A one-fell swoop was (under my explanation) the most likely meaning of One Fell Swoop. This is more credible than the Shakespeare Macbeth quote.

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