It’s been a few year since I’ve used the phrase at one fell swoop but I used it this past weekend at work and all I got was a blank stare. I used to use the phrase to describe how my teenage boys and friends descended upon my kitchen afterschool and wiped out just about everything in the refrigerator and freezer in one of their afterschool gatherings at our home but not so much lately.
Shakespeare either coined the phrase, or gave it circulation, in Macbeth, 1605:
MACDUFF: [on hearing that his family and servants have all been killed]
All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?
The kite referred to is a hunting bird, like the Red Kite, which was common in England in Tudor times and is now making a welcome return after near extinction in the 20th century. The swoop (or stoop as is now said) is the rapid descent made by the bird when capturing prey.
The phrase has become to mean a sudden action rather than an act of savagery. The Oxford English Dictionary defines fell as meaning ‘fierce, savage; cruel, ruthless; dreadful, terrible’.
I thought of this phrase for a second time this past weekend when I heard the news of the shooting in Arizona that killed and injured so many.
My heart and prayers extend to all the families involved in this tragedy.