Friday, August 25, 2006

Swell Foop

Pete: What does "fell swoop" mean?

In Old English, fell meant fierce, savage, and deadly. Fell comes from the Old French word "fel," meaning grim, merciless, or terrible.

Just about the only place you're likely to see it is in the phrase "one fell swoop." But the root word "fel" (a base meaning wicked) is found in the words "felon" and related forms such as "felony" and "felonious."

A swoop is a plummeting, sweeping motion, the kind that a hawk, falcon, or eagle would make in scooping up prey.

Shakespeare used the image in exactly that sense in Macbeth. Macduff, hearing that his entire family has been slain, says, “What, all my pretty chickens and their dam [mother] at one fell swoop?”

In fact, fell was one of Shakespeare’s favorite adjectives, as a small sampling will show.

Othello: “More fell than anguish, hunger, or the sea!”
Hamlet: But with the whiff and wind of his fell sword Th' unnerved father falls.
Hamlet: “this fell sergeant, Death, Is strict in his arrest”
Henry V: never may ill office, or fell jealousy, Which troubles oft the bed of blessed marriage, Thrust in between the paction of these kingdoms,
Henry VI, Part I: Fell banning hag, enchantress, hold thy tongue!
Henry VI, Part III: “While we devise fell tortures for thy faults.”
Julius Caesar: “All pity choked with custom of fell deeds”
King Lear: “in fell motion With his prepared sword he charges home
My unprovided body”
Macbeth: “Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose”
Richard II: “Fell sorrow's tooth doth never rankle more
Than when he bites, but lanceth not the sore.”
Timon of Athens: “This fell whore of thine
Hath in her more destruction than thy sword”
Troilus & Cressida: “ To-morrow do I meet thee, fell as death;
To-night all friends.”

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