Explaining ‘fell’ in one fell swoop

For years I’ve been reading the phrase at/in one fell swoop, and even using it occasionally, without ever examining it closely. I knew what it meant (“all at once”), and that it came from Shakespeare, but only recently did I stop and wonder: What’s that fell doing there?

It begins, as far as we know, with Macbeth. In Act 4, Scene 3, Macduff finds out (spoiler warning) that his family has been murdered, and he says:

He has no children. 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 of a kite from hell swooping to kill defenceless chooks gives the sense of a sudden, fierce, merciless assault: this much is self-evident; the use of fell is more obscure.

Fell as an adjective has had several meanings over the centuries, most of them now obsolete or restricted to poetic, rhetorical, dialectal and idiomatic contexts. The oldest adjectival sense dates from the late 13th century: “fierce, cruel, ruthless; terrible, destructive”, according to the OED. Thus did Shakespeare use it.

This fell came from Old French fel, from Middle Latin fello “villain, traitor”. Its history overlaps with that of felon – once “wicked person” – and of felo de se “suicide”. Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary connects it to Celtic tongues, for example Irish feall “betray, deceive” and Breton falloni “treachery”.

Over time, at one fell swoop softened and came to mean simply “all at once” or “in a single go” – that is, the connotations of viciousness and calamity faded. MWDEU says the idiom is now “neutral in application”. We can do the housework, empty the dessert bowl, X all the Y at one fell swoop.

Variations have multiplied. Fell swoop becomes foul swoop, fowl swoopfell stoop, fell stroke, full swoopfail swoop, and so on. The meaning remains the same, more or less, but you might want to be careful of the variant adjectives unless your intent is to play or pun on the original. The preposition at is often in and sometimes with; indeed, a definite switch from at to in appears to be under way:

The trend is supported by data from the Corpus of Historical American English. You can click on the following graphs to see how the respective phrases have been used.

at one fell swoop:

in one fell swoop:

Some critics consider at one fell swoop a cliché. Like any set expression, though, it can be deployed to good effect when its particular sound and style suit your needs.

Graeme Donald, in The Dictionary of Modern Phrase, says it “properly applies to the sudden, savage attack of a bird of prey when it goes into its stoop”. But not even Shakespeare used it that way: it has been metaphorical since birth.

Note: This post also appears on the Visual Thesaurus.

34 Responses to Explaining ‘fell’ in one fell swoop

  1. John Bagnall says:

    The OED has “stoop” pre-dating “swoop” (in the context of falconry) by some 60 years—so why no ”at one fell stoop”?

  2. Stan says:

    John: I included fell stoop in the partial list of variations. If you’re asking why Shakespeare chose swoop, I don’t know the answer to that.

  3. old gobbo says:

    You say ‘not even Shakespeare used it that way’: although the whole application of the kite image is indeed metaphor, the use of ‘at one fell swoop’ is literal within that, surely ?

  4. Eimear says:

    In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien uses “fell” a fair bit in the “fierce/terrible” sense – the Nazgûl are also called the Fell Riders. The corpse of one of their flying mounts is referred to as a “fell beast” and apparently Peter Jackson adopted “fell beasts” as the name of the creatures for the film. However Tolkien used the adjective fairly widely, including to describe the deadly aspect of some of the forces on the side of good.

  5. Jerry Friedman says:

    In The Lord of the Rings, “fell” confused my young self. In different places, it meant this, “animal skin”, and “hill”, and I’d never heard any of those (except in “one fell swoop”). That’s in addition to the usual verb meanings.

    In G. M. Hopkins’s poem “I wake, and feel the fell of dark, not day”, it might mean either “destructive” (used as a noun) or “animal skin”, or maybe “gall” (mentioned later in the poem), from Latin fel, according to the note in The Harper Anthology of Poetry.

    http://www.bartleby.com/122/45.html

  6. Stan says:

    old gobbo: Yes, but I wouldn’t use the word literal to describe the parts of a metaphorical phrase.

    Eimear: Thank you for those examples. It sounds as if Tolkien liked the word very much.

    Jerry: Maybe Tolkien liked it too much, if its different senses were confusing! Thanks for reminding me of Hopkins: he made good use of the word’s poetic potential.

  7. Miche says:

    The “fell” in “one fell swoop” is foreshadowed by the messenger who tries to warn Macduffe’s wife that she is in danger:

    If you will take a homely mans aduice,
    Be not found heere: Hence with your little ones
    To fright you thus. Me thinkes I am too sauage:
    To do worse to you, were fell Cruelty,
    Which is too nie your person. Heauen preserue you,
    I dare abide no longer.

    Macbeth is probably second only to Hamlet as the Shakespeare play most “full of quotations.” This can be a pity in performance: a lot of the power of “All my pretty Chickens, and their Damme
    At one fell swoope?” is lost because it has become a cliché.

  8. BeSlayed says:

    And there is the (intentionally?) spoonerised version: “one swell foop”.

  9. Like Eimear and Jerry Friedman above, I also thought at once of Tolkien’s use of “fell”, in particular in the passages where Aragorn (heir to the throne of the Western kingdoms of Men) and a group of his men summon up a ghost army of men who had hidden from a previous war, and lead it into battle. The first is in Chapter II of Book Five (the first part of the volume titled The Return of the King) of The Lord of the Rings, where the Dwarf Gimli first hears the name of the Paths of the Dead (which everybody fears) and calls it “a fell name”; the second in Chapter VI of the same book, when Eomer, king (since the death in the same battle of his predecessor) of the kingdom of Rohan which is one of the allied forces on the good side, sees the sails of a fleet captured by Aragorn and his ghost army, thinks it belongs to the enemy and that all hope is lost, and prepares for a last stand as “the lord of a fell people”. In neither case is the reference to what is explicitly evil in Tolkien’s world (although elsewhere it is): in the first, it’s more “terrifying, inspiring dread”; in the second it conveys the fearsome martial prowess of a people readers have already met as fundamentally good.

    It would be interesting to know whether the adjective has acquired, through Tolkien, a modern life in fantasy fiction (in which, however, I am far too poorly read to know).

  10. The truth is that I missed that phrase too. Somehow I skipped that fragment of Mackbeth assuming it had to be something archaic. Then, after reading your post, I started searching for any reliable translation of it in Polish releases of “Makbet” (Polish name) and I found the translations, totally different from your interpretation. The translators must have had something else in mind or they lacked this piece of knowledge.

  11. de_naerd says:

    in dutch ‘fel’ means fierce and ‘vel’ means skin

  12. Stan says:

    Miche: Ah, thanks for the insight. I’ve only read MacBeth once, and not recently enough to remember that. The cliché effect you describe is unavoidable, I suppose, the plays in that respect a victim of their own success. (Is ‘victim of their own success’ a cliché?)

    BeSlayed: I’ve yet to come across that one in the wild, but I like it: a foop could refer to all sorts of things.

    Terrence: That’s very interesting, thank you. I’d be surprised if some modern fantasy writers hadn’t followed Tolkien in adopting fell, but it’s not a genre I have much familiarity with at all.

    Tłumacz: Hmm. I wonder whether the Polish translations entailed creative licence or uncertainty about the phrase’s meaning.

    de_naerd: I imagine Dutch vel is connected to English velum ‘membrane’ and vellum ‘parchment made from animal skin’. In Ireland, fierce serves also as an intensifier: It’s fierce windy out.

  13. Marc Leavitt says:

    Stan:
    I thought she was swell,
    Till she proved herself fell.

  14. […] one fell swoop” at The Phrase Finder “Explaining ‘fell’ in one fell swoop’ at Sentence First “One fell swoop” at World Wide Words Posted: January 4, 2012 Tagged With: Idioms Filed […]

  15. John Cowan says:

    This fell is French in origin and is connected with felon, a word of obscure though definitely Latin origin: it may originally have meant ‘scourger, one who beats’, or ‘gall, poison’, or even ‘cocksucker’ (as in fellatio). Fell ‘skin, hide’, Dutch vel, is a native word; film is a doublet of it. The Latin equivalent is pellis, which gives us pell, pelt via French.

  16. Stan says:

    Marc: I like it. Another verse:

    The next romance went rather well,
    And I in love at one swoop fell.

    John: Thank you for elaborating. The connection with film hadn’t occured to me.

  17. beslayed says:

    I found that Piers Anthony has a novel with the title “Swell Foop”. The Wikipedia page suggests that this Spoonerism originates in the 1964 Peter Seller’s Pink Panther film. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swell_Foop )

  18. Stan says:

    Thanks for following up on this, beslayed. A search on Google Books shows a few hits for the spoonerism in the 19th century, and more again in the first half of the 20th, but the Pink Panther film presumably popularised it a bit.

  19. ladenframe says:

    great post, was scratching my head over this one, as I’d always pronounced it more like fiel, from northern ireland.

  20. […] accomplished it in one fell swoop (click here for a history of fell swoop), merely by driving around the […]

  21. B. says:

    I’m not arguing with any of the aforesaid, but in our family we always used one ‘foul’ swoop – and think that it probably ties in better with the early meaning of ‘fel’ than any other of the variaitons.

  22. David Morris says:

    Your graph from Google Books begins at 1800. I looked back to 1600, and the phrase was not used much between then and 1800, at which point it became popular. I thought that it might have lost popularity after Shakespeare’s death, but Wikipedia record Pepys referring to it (in an adaptation by Sir William Davenant). It also mentions a ‘popular adaptation’ by Robert Elliston in 1809, which might account for the upsurge shown in your graph.

  23. Matthew B says:

    I have always known it as one fell swoop. The image that it must have evoked in my mind when I first read it is of an axeman felling a tree in a single swing (swoop). I don’t disagree with the stated sources, and historical usage (Shakespeare et al) certainly reinforces the link to the swoop of a bird. Felling a tree in a single swoop would be a rare and amazing feat, which would have similar impact to the outcome Shakespeare was describing. But would Shakespeare have mixed metaphors in such a way?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Expressions of long standing are often subject to variation in imagery, interpretation, and wording. Shakespeare’s use of the phrase in question seems clear enough, but he wasn’t averse to mixing his metaphors, perhaps most famously in “to take arms against a sea of troubles”.

  24. Mitchell says:

    I can’t remember where, but I once saw the phrase explained this way: ‘fell’ refers to fallen, as in fallen from grace, or damned.

  25. Beath says:

    Fellmongery is a very old English trade . Fell = Pelt, viz. sheepskin; monger a dealer. Sheep skins are processed at a fellmongery by storing in a moist high temperature until the wool follicles rot and loosen. The pelt is placed wool side up over a firm, sloping, convex surface. The worker using both hands, bending as he pushes down the length of the skin, strips the wool from the fell. It can take several swoops to complete the task. A highly skilled worker will achieve this in one swoop. The first time I saw this operation Shakespeare’s words leapt to my mind. I wonder?

  26. […] I won’t go into a detailed explanation here because I’d just be repeating existing explanations on a gazillion other websites, one of which is https://stancarey.wordpress.com/2012/05/24/explaining-fell-in-one-fell-swoop/ […]

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