One Fell Swoop

What does that mean?

On a blog today I read “one fail swoop” and had to wince, because this should actually be written as:  one fell swoop.

The meaning:

Suddenly; in a single action.


“When Sean was at the bowling alley, he knocked down the pins in one fell swoop.”

The origin:

Shakespeare used the phrase in Macbeth, in 1605 but it is unclear whether he was the first to create the phrase, or simply the first to popularise it by using it in his play:

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 swoope?

I have seen this described as follows: “Shakespeare used the imagery of a hunting bird’s ‘fell swoop’ to indicate the ruthless and deadly attack by Macbeth’s agents.”

The phrase is British English, and has been misquoted and written incorrectly over the years in the following ways – these are all INCORRECT:

  • one fail swoop
  • one foul swoop
  • one swell foop
  • one felt swoop

This is correct:

… one fell swoop

2 Responses to One Fell Swoop

  1. Pat says:

    Thank you! I just saw “one fail swoop” on somebody’s FB post and it really bugged me, so I had to check and see if I’ve been saying it correctly all these years. Turns out I have.
    Thanks again!

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