One Fell Swoop: Meaning, Origin & Correct Usage

What does it mean to do something in one fell swoop? Our guide will help you grasp the meaning of the phrase. 

Have you ever done something in one fell swoop? It means to do something quickly, suddenly, at the same time, or in one swift action and was probably coined by William Shakespeare in his famous 1605 play Macbeth.

Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that the Shakespearean, initial meaning of the idiom is not the same as the one used today. His verse fashioned the phrase to convey the cruelty of an action, whereas modern usage revolves around its suddenness.

“All my pretty ones? Did you say all?

O hell-kite! All? 

What, all my pretty chickens and their dam 

At one fell swoop?”

William Shakespeare, Macbeth

According to the Collins Dictionary, “in one fell swoop” is used in British English, while “at one fell swoop” is preferred in American English. Both variants, therefore, are essentially correct.

“One fell swoop” is not the only linguistic construct we owe to Shakespeare. In his many beloved plays, the great poet and playwright combined words or changed the meaning of others, creating new understandings or uses that we integrate into our daily lives. 

To find out more, make sure to check out our list of words invented by Shakespeare.

The Meaning of “One Fell Swoop”

William Shakespeare
“One fell swoop” is not the only linguistic construct we owe to Shakespeare.

First, we must note that “to swoop” is to attack a target in a way akin to that of a bird of prey. In the idiom “one fell swoop,” the word “swoop” is used as a noun, referring to an attack. 

Second, Shakespeare uses “fell” here to mean “cruel,” but the word is largely overlooked in the way that it is used nowadays.

In the scene, the playwright uses the full phrase, “one fell swoop,” to signal that the wife and children of one character were attacked as if by a hawk coming down from above on its prey. The overarching meaning centers around the cruelty of the act, while its speed or suddenness is secondary. 

Nowadays, however, we use the phrase “one fell swoop” to highlight the suddenness of something, or that multiple actions are undertaken simultaneously, according to

Explaining Idioms such as “One Fell Swoop”

One fell swoop is an idiom, which means that its composing words do not signify the meaning of the whole construct. In other words, you cannot deduce that “one fell swoop” means sudden or simultaneous from analyzing the meaning of the words “one,” “fell,” or “swoop” separately.

The meaning of idioms, then, is given culturally through shared understanding and continued use. They can convey complex ideas in a few words and add an element of color to a text. Many of them have a rich history behind them. For example, “spill the beans” may well have originated in an ancient practice of voting with the help of beans. 

Idioms are, moreover, used figuratively as a kind of meaningful exaggeration. Even though an action did not occur in one instant, its relative suddenness or speed may still prompt us to say it happened “in one fell swoop.”

Other examples of idioms are:

  • “break a leg,” which is used to wish someone good luck
  • “spill the beans,” which people use to convince someone to reveal a secret
  • “once in a blue moon,” which means rarely
  • “go down in flames,” used when something spectacularly falls apart or ends in failure
  • “the ball is in your court,” which means that it is your turn to decide something or to act

Idioms are famously tricky to translate due to their figurative nature and the fact that their meaning is culturally ascribed. Nevertheless, many idioms in the English language have counterparts with similar meanings in other languages, and discovering them may serve as a gateway to rich foreign cultures. 

Etymology of “One Fell Swoop”

Going in search of the origins of the idiom “one fell swoop” takes us down the dark linguistic alleyways of the English language, back in time by around 500 years. 

The word “fell” originates in the Old English word fællan, meaning to dash or strike when used as a verb. As an adjective, the word gains the meaning of “cruel” in the late 13th century, coming from the Old English or Old French word fel, or cruel. In turn, the word fel originated in the Medieval Latin word fello, or villain, according to Etymonline

Interestingly, the English word “cruel” also comes from the French “cruel(le). 

Swoop,” meaning pounce on, comes to us from around the 1630s, and may have been influenced by Scottish and the Old Norse word sopa, or “to sweep.”

Nowadays, as we mentioned earlier, the word “fell,” used as “cruel,” has fallen into disuse. As a result, the accent in “one fell swoop” lies on the suddenness or simultaneity of action, similar to the suddenness of a hawk’s attack, rather than the cruelty of it.

In “one fell swoop,” therefore, means suddenly or simultaneously. 

Using One Fell Swoop in a Sentence

Here are some examples of how to use “one fell swoop” in a sentence correctly:

  1. The movers took all the furniture and moved it in one fell swoop.
  2. All of his investments were risky, so he lost everything in one fell swoop when the market crashed.
  3. Stop trying to deal with all your problems in one fell swoop; you need to approach them one by one.
  4. City Hall cannot decide to do away with the parks in the area in one fell swoop.
  5. In one fell swoop, they got a divorce and moved away.

Synonyms of One Fell Swoop

From a grammatical standpoint, the phrase “one fell swoop” is an adverb. Adverbs can be individual words or phrases, sometimes called adverbial phrases. 

As a result, some of the synonyms of “one fell swoop” would be:

  • whole
  • wholly
  • entirely
  • outright
  • in one
  • in entirety
  • all at once
  • in a mouthful
  • with one mouthful
  • in one mouthful
  • in one bite
  • with one bite
  • in one piece
  • in one go
  • in an instant
  • suddenly
  • closely
  • collectively
  • in tandem
  • jointly
  • simultaneously
  • concertedly
  • concomitantly
  • concurrently


  • Radu has been writing for a decade as a copywriter, journalist, and academic writer. He was nominated for the European Press Prize in 2019 and authored a book on campaign finance and corporate personhood in the United States. Books are Radu’s passion, particularly science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, and nonfiction. Check out his YouTube channel.