What Does “One Fell Swoop” Mean?

Have you ever heard the phrase “one fowl swoop” or “one foul swoop”? This common expression is usually used to explain an event taking place very suddenly and all at once. But why did this become a saying? Does it have something to do with birds? Let’s look into it!

Originally, the phrase was actually “one fell swoop.” It might have been created by Shakespeare, or maybe he just made it popular. This phrase first appeared in Act 4, scene 3 of Macbeth. In this scene, Macduff just learned that his family was killed. He says,” O hell-kite . . . all my pretty chickens, and their dam, At one fell swoop?” 


It’s interesting that Shakespeare talks about birds like a kite and chickens, but he doesn’t use the phrase “fowl swoop” (nor “foul swoop”). He says, “fell swoop.” Fell can mean something evil. It has the same source as a felon, a wicked person.

Therefore, “one fell swoop” meant a sudden, terrible attack. Over the years, the evil part of it faded away, and it came to mean, simply, all at once.

Graphic illustrating the meaning of one fell swoop. This phrase is used to explain an event happening very suddenly, or all at once.



Here are some examples from various media sources.

“In one fell swoop, Johnson will put Vanguard on its heels in the asset gathering business.” – Forbes

“In one fell swoop ESPN will provide a path for change on each.” – Los Angeles Times

“A solid one-pound block of butter could be made into a few dozen pats with one fell swoop.” – The New York Times

“Then it all came crashing down in one fell swoop.” – Independent 

“It almost sums up his philosophy in one fell swoop.” – The New Yorker

Related: Is it Bear With Me or Bare With Me?


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By Patrice Riley

Patrice Riley is the pen name of Dr. Deborah Riley. She is a retired English professor that enjoys grammar, literature, and all things writing.

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