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One fell swoop

  • To do something in one fell swoop is to do it suddenly or in a single, swift action. Fell here is an adjective meaning fierce, savage, cruel, or ruthless.1 This sense of fell is otherwise archaic, preserved mainly in this idiom. The swoop in one fell swoop is a noun referring to (1) a blow or stroke or (2), metaphorically, a bird’s sudden, sweeping descent from a height.2

    It’s possible to imagine contexts where one foul swoop might make sense, but these must be rare. Foul can mean evil or offensive, and some swoops might indeed be evil. Still, one foul swoop is usually just a misspelling of one fell swoop.

    There’s also one fowl swoop, which, believe it or not, does appear several times in searches covering recent news stories. This likewise doesn’t make much sense. Some fowl do swoop, but fowl generally doesn’t work as an adjective.

    Origin

    The earliest documented instance of one fell swoop is from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1605):

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

    Here, Shakespeare clearly means swoop in its second sense (i.e., a bird’s sudden, swift descent), but the phrase is sometimes used with swoop being closer to its first sense.

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    Examples

    The board could have listened patiently, collected its thoughts and forcefully addressed that hyperbolic message in one fell swoop. [New York Times]

    The only winner was of course French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who achieved his dual agenda in one fell swoop. [Financial Times]

    Waiting at the checkout may not be everyone’s idea of fun, but it’s a way to get your shopping sorted in one fell swoop. [The Age]

    References

    1. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/69069 (subscription required) ^
    2. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/196025 (subscription required) ^

    Other resources

    “At one fell swoop” at The Phrase Finder
    “Explaining ‘fell’ in one fell swoop” at Sentence First
    “One fell swoop” at World Wide Words

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    Comments

    1. You are so wrong about one fell swoop. In old English, “Fell”, meant meadow, or a hidden grassy area, where a hawk, or eagle would hunt for mice, and they would swoop down over the meadow, scanning it in one swoop, because they are that good. Hence, finishing the job, “In one fell swoop”. “Foul” is absurd. I did hear one idiot, during a professional meeting, say, “One foul swat”. Laughed so hard I near pissed my pants.

      • Ooops, a bit off with my definition of a, “fell”, but you get the idea.

        • SoapboxDeflector says:

          Actually, I am not sure I get your meaning. Sounds like you just jumped on here to rant because you don’t agree with ONE possible meaning (because who really knows exactly which context the first phrase was meant to mean) of the phrase. Cute how you jumped on your little soapbox though.

    2. Always liked to think of it from a logger’s point of view. If only one could fell a tree with one swoop of their axe.

    3. Marsh Weber says:

      I like to say, “one swell poop.” Oh, hahahahaa (laughter ensues), “take that Bill Shakespeare, you old so-and-so!”

      • One swell foop sounds better, don’t you think? I think Bill would have preferred it. It lends itself to an expressive and dramatic fooping gesture, too.

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