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.