Figuratively Speaking

It’s Friday, and time for Figuratively Speaking.

Today, it’s One Fell Swoop.

I’ve often wondered exactly what this phrase really means, how it was first used and how it originated.

So let’s start by taking it apart.

SWOOP. An intransitive verb! How wonderful. Swoop means to move rapidly downward through the air, as in, I saw the owl swoop to capture the mouse in the dark.

Swoop also means to carry out a sudden attack: Investigators will swoop on the home before arresting him.

Swoop can also be transitive: She swooped the kitten up into her arms.

Now here is where it really gets interesting …

FELL. We know fell as the past tense of fall, but it also means, in a transitive sense, to cut down, as in fell a tree.

There is another, poetic meaning, that means of terrible evil or ferocity.

Which takes us to One Fell Swoop, which means all at one time, as in, We took the garbage out of the house in one fell swoop.

Now, guess the origin of this marvelous phrase?

Yes, we can thank the Bard for this one … One Fell Swoop first appeared in Macbeth, when Macduff 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?

Leave it to William Shakespeare to find the sparkling new use for the same old words.By the way, fell in the sense of terrible comes from the French word felon, which means a wicked person, much as it does today.
2008-05-23 11:57:58 GMT

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