Q From Joe Davis and Myrna Finnell: I have always wondered about the expression one fell swoop. What can you tell me about it?
A The phrase is one of those fixed expressions that we hardly think about most of the time. It means all at once, suddenly. It’s been around in the language for at least 400 years. Shakespeare is first recorded as using it, in Macbeth: when Macduff hears that his family has been murdered, he says in disbelief:
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 image that Shakespeare’s audience would have brought to mind at once was a falcon plummeting out of the sky to snatch its prey (like the kite for example, which was a bird of prey long before it became an aerial machine). You might guess that fell has something to do with fall, but it hasn’t. It actually means some thing of terrible evil or deadly ferocity. We now never see it outside this fixed phrase (or perhaps only occasionally in poetic use) but once it was a common word in its own right. One of its relatives is still about: felon, which comes from the same Old French source, fel, evil. Originally a felon was a cruel or wicked person; only later did the word evolve to mean a person who commits a serious crime.
Since fell swoop doesn’t mean anything to most English speakers these days, it’s frequently changed to foul swoop. For example, this appeared in a letter to the Daily Mail on 1 November 2006: “If the inadequate ones go to the wall, tough. In one foul swoop you get rid of all the repeat offenders, the murderers - all the violent scum.”
There are actually four fell words in English; apart from this one, there is the verb meaning to cut down (intimately linked with fall), the one meaning an animal skin (as in the obsolete trade of fellmonger), and the one meaning a hill (as in the fells of Cumbria). They all come from different source words.