Where did the Phrase "One Fell Swoop" Come from?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

People have been using the phrase “at one fell swoop” in English since the 1600s, and like many idioms, many people are entirely unaware of its origins. This phrase is generally used to mean “all at once,” in a very rapid and final sense, although one could be forgiven for wondering what falling and swooping have to do with something happening suddenly and perhaps violently. Unlike many idioms, which seem to have appeared in the English language with no apparent origins, we actually do know where “one fell swoop comes from.”

Shakespeare's Macbeth contains the first use of "one fell swoop."
Shakespeare's Macbeth contains the first use of "one fell swoop."

To understand the origins of this phrase, we are going to need to read a little Shakespeare, because the first documented use of it appeared in the play Macbeth:

Shakespeare coined a number of new words and phrases in his works.
Shakespeare coined a number of new words and phrases in his works.
All my pretty ones? Did you say all? Oh, hell-kite, all? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam at one fell swoop?

In Shakespeare's “one fell swoop,” a single incident changes the life of the character MacDuff forever; his entire family is murdered on the orders of Macbeth, who fears that MacDuff is angling for his throne. In the end, Macbeth's fears turn out to be well-grounded, as he is ultimately defeated by MacDuff at the end of the play.

The root for “fell” in this sense is the French fel, which means “evil.” Although we no longer use the word in this sense, except in obscure poetry, we do retain another word in the English language with this root: “felon.” Fell as in “to fall” comes from an entirely different Anglo-Saxon word, illustrating the diverse roots of the English language.

People often use this phrase to describe the accomplishment of several tasks with a single action, as in “the candidate rearranged the campaign staff at one fell swoop.” The term implies finality and rapidity, sometimes with a hint brutal force. It is also sometimes mispronounced as “one swell foop,” sometimes deliberately by people who want to bring levity to a serious situation.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

babylove

@wizup – I think I would’ve enjoyed your grandfather’s stories. I think it's so sad that "one fell swoop" has been taken out of context so much that the evil portion is gone and we’re left with just suddenly. I think phrases and their meanings change over time because people don’t understand what they mean. I’ve seen this written as one foul swoop before and even the swoop was changed to stoop. They’re two completely different actions.

aviva

One fell swoop is a font you can download for free. It looks like calligraphy and is popular for stationary, cards, invitations, etc. After reading the article I suppose its name was derived from Shakespeare's handwriting.

I don’t know exactly who designed the font, nor have I used it, but you can download it from several different websites. The advertisement states to download for personal use only. I’m not sure if you could sell your own creations, but it would make pretty wedding invitations.

wizup

Thank you for explaining the one fell swoop meaning. My late grandfather used that phrase a lot when he told stories. I never really knew what it meant, but I figured it must have something to do with being quick. His stories were always very descriptive, but this article shed some more light on it for me.

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