at one fell swoop (did you say all?)

Es­ti­mated reading time is 3 min­utes.

LIKE MANY PEOPLE who speak Eng­lish, I oc­ca­sion­ally use the phrase at one fell swoop. I know what I mean when I use it and I as­sume (al­though I never as­sume any­thing, of course) that each and every lis­tener also knows what I mean. But what does the phrase mean? Ba­si­cally, at one fell swoop means some­thing done in a single ac­tion. 1

For ex­ample: I re­cently changed the look of this site by in­stalling Modern Themes’ Readit theme. I love the overall look of Readit but pre­ferred that the width of the con­tent columns on each post (that is what you are now reading) be of a lesser width than the theme calls for. 

I con­tacted one of Mod­ern’s de­signers, Robbie Grabowski, and ex­plained my sit­u­a­tion. He pro­vided me with a tiny snippet of code that I added to Readit and at one fell swoop the width of the con­tent in all 357 posts was re­duced to 660 pixels. On scree, this is about the width of a page of text in a hard­bound book, and there­fore the most com­fort­able for most of us to scan.

So, I know that you know ex­actly what I meant when I used at one fell swoop in the sen­tence above. But where in Grom­mett’s Wholly Name did the idiom come from? That is, whence was it coined and for what use?

“This 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.

So, what’s that 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 un­am­bigu­ously de­fines fell as meaning ‘fierce, savage; cruel, ruth­less; dreadful, terrible.’


Even though there are some fine stills of Dan O’Her­lihy as Mac­duff from the 1948 movie Mac­beth (pro­duced and di­rected by Welles), how could I not use this ex­tra­or­di­nary photo of Orson Welles as the haunted king? And is there a more dra­matic and en­gaging way to present the header at the top of this page than the look given it by the Readit Pro theme:  filling your com­puter screen like  a wide-screen movie and then, as you scroll down, fading into the test via a par­allax effect?

Shake­speare ei­ther coined the phrase or gave it cir­cu­la­tion in Mac­beth (1605) when Lord Mac­duff, on hearing that his family and ser­vants have all been killed, de­claims, ‘All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam? At one fell swoop?’


This beau­tiful il­lus­tra­tion of the Red Kite by Ian Rees shows the bird in flight.

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.”

The six para­graphs above were lifted (and con­ser­v­a­tively edited) from The Phrase Finder, a web­site de­voted to ex­plaining phrases that we use all the time without re­ally knowing why. Fi­nally, I don’t wanna hear no jokes about no swell fooping . . .



1   “At one fell swoop” is often used in­cor­rectly as “in one fell swoop.

2   Older readers, for wide-screen movie think Cin­erama; younger readers, think Imax.

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