Monthly Archives: May 2012

One fell swoop

There is an in-house commercial that plays over the P.A. system at work that uses the phrase “one fell swoop.” Since I hear this commercial dozens of times a day, the phrase has been sticking in my mind. What the heck is a “fell swoop?”

Turns out this phrase, like so many others in our language, originated with my favorite writer, William Shakespeare. He apparently was the first to use it, in the tragedy Macbeth. In this play, based on a real Scottish king, there are many tragic events, but perhaps the most heinous is the brutal murder of Macduff’s wife and children. When he learns of this crime, Macduff asks, “What, all my pretty chickens and their dam, at one fell swoop?” (IV.iii.218).

Here, “fell” means savage or deadly. The word is rarely used as an adjective today, which is why it may sound a bit odd in this expression. However, the next time you hear it, you’ll know where it came from. Macbeth is also the source of the saying “what’s done is done,” as well as the movie/book title “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” And for all you Star Trek fans out there, it was the source of the original series episode title “Dagger of the Mind,” one of many Trek titles taken from the bard.

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May Day


May Day. Maypoles. Cinco de Mayo. What’s up with all these references to May? Today we’re going to look at that first one, May Day. You may know this as some sort of vague holiday, and also as a radio distress signal. But where did these originate?

Like many holidays, May Day is pagan in origin. It is basically a celebration of Spring (or summer, depending on where you live). In many places it is quite a lively celebration, and yes, there is often dancing around a “maypole.” The reason this all may be unfamiliar is because we don’t really celebrate May Day in this country, though we do celebrate Cinco de Mayo (“fifth of May”), a holiday to recognize Mexican heritage. It marks the date of a Mexican victory over France in 1862.

To further complicate matters, “May Day” is also celebrated, especially by organized labor, as a worker’s holiday. It marks the day in 1886 when the workday was to be shortened to eight hours.

But my larger concern here is how “May Day” came to be an international distress call, which actually is one of my favorite word-origin stories. What connection is there between a celebration of Spring and a pilot in distress? Absolutely none. What we have here is a case of homophones – words that sound alike but mean different things. The “mayday” call was originated in 1923 by a British radio officer, and it has nothing to do with the month of May. People who use the distress call probably don’t realize that they’re essentially speaking French. The call comes from the French phrase “m’aider.” And what does that mean?

“Help me.”

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