Mind your language

‘One fell swoop’ has become a cliche, but where does it come from?

9 March 2019

9:00 AM

9 March 2019

9:00 AM

The Sun, reviewing a new laptop from Huawei, mentioned a combined fingerprint sensor and on-switch that lets users ‘power up and log in in one fell swoop’.

Logging-in is not usually a fell act, but one fell swoop has long been a cliché, rather than a quotation from Macbeth, where Macduff, on hearing of their murder, asks: ‘What, all my pretty chickens and their dam / At one fell swoop?’

The phrase at one swoop was in the Jacobean air, for Webster in his White Devil has Lodovico declare: ‘Fortune’s a right whore. / If she give ought, she deales it in small parcels, / That she may take away all at one swope.’


Fell has four main meanings, three of them found in Macbeth: ‘terrible’, as here; ‘has fallen’ (‘The victory fell on us’); and ‘pelt’ (‘My fell of hair / Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir’). The fourth, ‘hill’, in north-west England, had come in with the Norsemen. Gerard Manley Hopkins plays on two meanings, ‘terrible’ (like a felon) and ‘pelt’, in the opening line of his sonnet ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day’. Later in the poem he says ‘I am gall,’ aware that some find the origin of felon in the Latin fel, ‘gall’.

A bird’s swoop is, to the falconer, a stoop, an unrelated word. Swoop has the same origin as sweep (and as swift, ‘fast’, and swift, the fast-flying bird). Stoop, ‘descend’, is the same verb as stoop, ‘bend’, used as early as King Alfred’s translation of the writer Orosius, that curious man who journeyed to meet both St Jerome in Bethlehem and St Augustine in North Africa.

I always took Goldsmith’s play She Stoops to Conquer in the falconry sense. Indeed he writes elsewhere of water-fowl ‘making sudden stoops from above’. Before it was staged, his friend Samuel Johnson remarked: ‘We are all in labour for a name to Goldy’s play.’

Goldsmith had meant to quote from Dryden, but took a misquotation by Chesterfield, ‘The prostrate lover, when he lowest lies, / But stoops to conquer, and but kneels to rise.’ Dryden had written: ‘But kneels to conquer, and but stoops to rise.’

I hope Huawei do not stoop to put their computers to fell uses.

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