One Fell Swoop

The phrase "one fell swoop" comes from Shakespeare's "Macbeth."

Samantha Enslen, Writing for
2-minute read

a picture of a bird of prey to illustration the idiom one fell swoop

Most people know that if you do something in one fell swoop, you do it all at once. 

As in, “I sat down last night and made my website in one fell swoop.” 

But what does fell mean? And who is swooping?

As far as we know, this phrase was first written down by Shakespeare, in the play Macbeth. It’s spoken by the character Macduff, a Scottish thane, or clan leader. 

In the play, the thane Macbeth murders the king of Scotland and takes the throne for himself. When this happens, Macduff flees the country to seek a rival for the new king. He soon learns that Macbeth has killed his wife and children in revenge. 

When Macduff learns this, he cries out.

All my pretty ones? 
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? 
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam 
At one fell swoop?

Let’s break this lament apart and see what it means.

The kite in “O hell-kite” refers to a bird of prey, like a hawk. 

Fell means fierce, savage, or dreadful. It comes from the Old French term fel, meaning evil.

Swoop has multiple meanings that could apply here. It can mean a blow, an act of clearing things away, or the act of descending from a great height.

A fell swoop thus describes the way a bird of prey might fall from the sky upon its quarry. Or a murderous thane fall upon his unwitting victims. 

Today, the phrase in one fell swoop has lost these dark connotations. It has a neutral meaning, free of any shades of dread.

So that’s your tidbit for today. To do something in one fell swoop means to do something quickly and all at once. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or @DragonflyEdit.

pinterest sized image of a bird with the phrase one fell swoop


Ammer, Christine. One fell swoop. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 

Ayto, John. Fell. In (or at) one fell swoop. Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Lass, Abraham. MacDuff. Dictionary of Classical, Biblical, and Literary Allusions Paperback. Fawcett, 1988.  

Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Fell. Oxford University Press. http://bit.ly/1P2gjHs (subscription required, accessed December 11, 2015).

About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.

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