The Grammarphobia Blog

One fell swoop

Q: Do you know the origin of the phrase “one fell swoop”? I’ll bet there’s an interesting story behind it.

A: Interesting, indeed! The expression once brought to mind a terrible, even blood-curdling image, but it’s now used with nary a thought to mean all at once or suddenly.

The phrase has been around since Elizabethan times. In fact, the first recorded use is by Shakespeare in Macbeth, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. On hearing that his whole family has been slain, Macduff asks:

Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

Michael Quinion, on his website World Wide Words, notes that an audience in Shakespeare’s day would have immediately pictured “a falcon plummeting out of the sky to snatch its prey.”

But the key word, the adjective “fell,” which is rarely used now, has nothing to do with falling. It means cruel, evil, fierce, deadly, or sinister. “Fell” comes from Old French and gives us the modern English word “felon.” The noun “swoop” comes from Old English and gives us the modern verbs “sweep” and “swoop.”