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.“