How years and ears distort the English language: origin of idioms

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pic by Thomas Morse

Shakespeare was the theme of our Toastmasters meeting last week. We learnt about how much The Bard contributed to the English language – from general words and phrases to idiomatic expressions and even people’s names.

We all contributed our favourite Shakespearian quotes and Richard III came up as one of the most-read plays.


Among the phrases listed was ‘one fell swoop’, but years and ears have distorted the original form and it has come to be thought of as ‘one fowl swoop’ or ‘one foul swoop’ each which you can interpret for yourselves.  Many such distortions occur over time and it’s only grammar nerds like myself who take the time and trouble to refer back to the original and correct form of language entrants.

Bird of prey

“The phrase at (or inone fell swoop means all in one go. Here, the noun swoop, which denotes the act of swooping down, refers to the sudden pouncing of a bird of prey (a kite for example) from a height upon its quarry (of Germanic origin, the verb swoop is cognate with sweep). The adjective fell (related to felon) means of terrible evil or ferocity,” says says “So, “one fell swoop” originally meant a sudden, ferocious attack, although the sense of savagery in the phrase has been lost over the years and people now use it to mean, simply, all at once.”

Savage felon

New to my research is The Straight Dope which adds: “Fell, from Old English, means awful, terrible or horrible. The word’s stem can also be seen in “felon,” which now is mostly used to mean someone who has been convicted of a felony (a serious crime), but which formerly meant one who is terrible, horrible or awful in behaviour. The “swoop” is an onomatopoeia (the word sounds like the action), indicating a fast movement. All together, “one fell swoop” means a swift, horrible blow.

All the colour, drama and detail that Shakespeare adds to the language cannot be acknowledge dare I say ‘in one fell  swoop’ (in common usage), there’s just far too much to credit.

Long live the work(s) of The Bard.

English idioms: how they get distorted

From six yards to nine: how idioms originate

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  1. Raashida Khan

    How very interesting.