The phrase ‘one fell swoop’ is a popular idiom that dates back hundreds of years. But its original meaning has shifted a bit.
Back in April, TVLine reported that Netflix canceled its entire Bling Empire “in one fell swoop.” I never heard of those shows, so I obviously didn’t consider it a great loss. The Sacramento Bee used the same idiom to refer to multiple laws in California that had been struck down.
An idiom is a phrase whose meaning may not necessarily be clear at face value. In this case, “one fell swoop” refers to one single, sudden action in which more than one thing happens. That wasn’t quite the original meaning of the phrase.
Dictionary.com suggests that the phrase originated with William Shakespeare. The site points to Macbeth. In Act IV, Scene 3, Macduff, who has just learned of the murder of his wife and children, says this:
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?Macbeth — Act 4, Scene 3
As you can probably guess, the swoop refers to the speed of a hawk. In one maneuver, in other words, Macduff’s wife and children have been killed.
What seems to have changed, however, is the meaning of fell.
While we now understand the phrase to refer to a sudden action, that’s not how it began. The original meaning of fell in this particular idiom, Dictionary.com notes, was “cruel or ruthless.”
The phrase’s popularity to this day suggests plenty of people understand the overall meaning, even if they never knew its first meaning.