A Confession – in one … swoop

I have a dreadful confession to make.

(Err… Can I do this?)

I am a very lazy writer.

Don’t leave yet! It’s not as bad as you think!!!

You see, I choose my occasions to be lazy – and it’s NEVER when I’m writing a poem or a story. But when I’m writing an email to a friend… I can be very lazy indeed!

If one word doesn’t convey precisely what I want – rather than spend time finding that perfect word (as I most definitely would do in ‘real’ writing – because I know there is a perfect word for every situation) in email interaction, I do, on occasion (ummm… much too often, actually!) resort to the slash bar. It’s a fantastic timesaving device!

Recently I was emailing a friend…

With fog in the air, one poor motorist had a very scary experience, collecting three of them in one…

I paused… pondered… puzzled… One… what? Fell? Foul? Which did they do in one swoop?

I was fairly certain correct usage was ‘fell’. Because ‘fell’ and ‘swoop’ are both falling… Yep, they fit. But what is a ‘fell swoop’, anyway? In my situation it was definitely more ‘foul’ than ‘fell’… And there is an abstract link there too – because birds (fowls) swoop. Just ask the magpies! Perhaps there was some clever wordplay at work – and I’d been missing all these years?

So even though I was fairly sure ‘fell’ was the correct word – I was leaning towards ‘foul’. And that’s when I remembered the wonderful ‘slash’ key… Hedge your bets and use both!

With fog in the air, one poor motorist had a very scary experience, collecting three of them in one fell/foul swoop.

The slash of the key and my dilemma was solved. The slash enabled me to hint (broadly) at the awfulness of the scene… but I didn’t leave me looking like a complete ditz, either, if indeed the word I wanted was ‘fell’. (Right?)

I finished my email, hit sent, and should have moved on. But I couldn’t. I was plagued by the conundrum. What was the correct word to complete the phrase? And where did that saying come from anyway? I mean – I could justify a case for either word, but obviously one was more right than the other.

So, I started digging around – and you’d be surprised what I found.

One fell swoop is the work of William Shakespeare – and it really was used to convey a despicable, foul act – and what’s more, it really does relate to our feathered friends.

As Shakespeare’s character Macduff lamented, on hearing news of the murder of his family:

All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?
(Macbeth, 1605)

Interesting to note the reference to ‘hell-kite’; the raptor (not quite a magpie) a sharp contrast to the soft and ‘pretty chickens’ of Macduff’s family. Powerful imagery to convey the swift and ruthless swoop of Macbeth’s merciless men.

I learnt that ‘fell’ (in this case) is not the past tense of ‘fall’. Rather, it stems from an Old French word “fel,” meaning gri

m, merciless, or terrible. It is from this word that we get “felon”, originally meaning a cruel or evil person.

Shakespeare has been credited for many wise and weighty words over the years. But I never would have attributed one fell swoop to The Bard. I’m quite impressed that he was on my wavelength with that fowl AND foul thing. (Though he may thought of it before me…)

And now that I know more about the saying, I think one fell swoop might have been just the image I was looking for all along!

If you’re interested in reading more, these links are interesting and informative:

http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-fel1.htm
http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/at-one-fell-swoop.html
http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/15/messages/202.html

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8 comments

  1. Kat, I like your informal/easygoing emails 😛 You don’t have to be fancy with friends, and that’s a good thing! Save your editing for the manuscripts. And thanks for the origin of phrase lesson. I always love hearing little tidbits like that 🙂

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  2. Aww… Thanks Karen. It’s fun bantering in email/tweets. (Oops! There I go, slashing again – and you too, I see. 🙂 )

    There is a certain satisfaction in finding the perfect word – you think, Julie? Almost a haiku moment. A-ha.

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  3. Don’t you just love William Shakespeare – there are so many things we say today in our common speech that have come from one of the Bard’s plays. I love the man! In my ms, M&M, Macbeth has used about 40 quotes and all in the right place – it required much research into the plays.

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  4. Thanks for the recommendation, Book Chook. I will have to chase it up.

    Sheryl, I hadn’t considered all the reading and research you would have had to do to equip Macbeth for his role in your story. Fascinating stuff!

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