Word Hawk Swoops in on 'Fell'

By Rob Kyff

April 19, 2017 3 min read

"One fell swoop." Most scholars believe it was William Shakespeare who first used this phrase, and he imbued it with the most negative meaning possible.

In Shakespeare's "Macbeth," when Macduff learns that his wife and all his children have been murdered, he laments, "What, all my pretty chickens and their dam / At one fell swoop?" Macduff was conjuring the terrifying image of a falcon or hawk swooping from the sky to snatch its prey.

"In one fell swoop" means "in one evil act." This "fell" has nothing to do with the past tense of "fall." Derived from the same root as "felon," it means "cruel, savage, ruthless." It's not a jolly good "fell"ow.

But, as Elmer Sullivan of Ewing, N.J., reminds me, people are "fell swooping" all over the place with no negative meaning in mind.

The Los Angeles Times, for instance, recently noted that "filmmaker Marcel Pagnol saw a way to bring his work to the entire world in one fell swoop." By emulating Howard Hawks?

(As I'm writing this — and I'm not making this up! — a hawk is cruising over my backyard bird feeder hoping to snatch a cardinal or chickadee. This ominous patrol could be a death sentence, with a dreadful fell swoop as its exclamation point.)

Meanwhile, back at the rant, consider the cheery "fell swoops" in these newspaper headlines: "Burn some calories and help a great cause in one fell swoop" (Chicago Tribune); "Dual degree programs mean you can get two diplomas in one fell swoop" (Washington Post); "County approves Human Services positions in one fell swoop." (Hudson Star and Observer).

(Update: Hawk still circling. Birds hiding in fir tree.)

Another negative term that's sometimes used positively is "throes." A "throe" is a pang, spasm, or, by extension, a painful struggle. It's almost always used in its plural form, as in "death throes."

But more and more people are using "throes" as a neutral and even positive term, meaning "process."

In a January interview on the PBS News Hour, for instance, then-CIA Director John Brennan said that his agency was "in the final throes" of its review of Russian hacking.

And The Buffalo News recently reported that "America is in the throes of a new love affair with the classic movie musical."

It's true that investigations and love affairs can be painful, but has "throes" been reduced to a merry "throe"-away line?

(Final report on hawk: No fell swoop; no birds in death throes. Whew.)

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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