in/at one fell swoop (=with a single action or movement, all at the same time)

What's fell here? I think 'swoop' is a noun and if it should be modified, then 'past participle' or adjective should do it.

Let's look at the below. 'fell' is past of fall and infinitive of 'fell'.

No adjective element is found.

  1. fall-fell-fallen (intransitive)

  2. fell-felled-felled (transitive)

What's the fell here?

  • 7
    Did you try looking up "fell" in the dictionary? Every dictionary I checked has an entry for "fell" as an adjective meaning something along the lines of cruel, terrible, fierce, destructive or deadly, which is pretty much what it means here (not necessarily cruel, but more destructive or powerful).
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Apr 2, 2021 at 16:05
  • Yes, I read the meaning in a dictionary but I was unsure of the 'fell' in my example: in/at one fell swoop.Now I am sure of its meaning.
    – gomadeng
    Commented Apr 3, 2021 at 8:13

2 Answers 2


"Fell" is an adjective and not related to the verbs "fell" or "fall"

It means "strong and cruel". It is rare in this sense, except in the expression "one fell swoop". Tolkien uses it to describe some of his monsters:

The fell beasts were winged creatures with beak and claws, similar to birds but much larger than any other flying beast.

The phrase "one fell swoop" is from Shakespeare. Macduff refers to how a red kite swooped down and killed all the chickens and chicks, as a metaphor for how Macbeth massacred his family.

Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What! all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

-- Macbeth, act IV

The sense of "cruelty" in the original phrase has been lost, and most native speakers won't know the word "fell" in this context. For most native speakers of English it just means "suddenly and in one attempt".

See this proverb described at phrases.org.uk

  • 10
    As an adjective, it's pretty much a fossil word
    – wjandrea
    Commented Apr 2, 2021 at 16:03
  • 2
    Related to felony perhaps? See dictionary.com/browse/felony Commented Apr 2, 2021 at 16:05
  • 6
    Perhaps, but not closely. "felon" is old French (via norman), Whereas "Fell" is attested as part of some OE compounds, and so has an ultimately Germanic source. it is possible that the Old french word was borrowed from Frankish (germanic) or that the French term influenced the development of what must have been a rare word if it existed as an independent term in OE.
    – James K
    Commented Apr 2, 2021 at 16:12
  • 1
    @XavierStuvw No, see my answer.
    – alephzero
    Commented Apr 3, 2021 at 0:25
  • 4
    The Tolkien quote I remember was something like, "he fed his beasts with fell meats". Near where I used to live, on Fell St, there was a grocery named Fell Meats. I always wondered what they sold there.... :-)
    – Jennifer
    Commented Apr 3, 2021 at 9:25

The original word was Middle English fel or fell meaning "strong, fierce, terrible, cruel, angry."

The Middle English word was derived from the Old English suffix -fel or -fell meaning "cruel, savage, fierce."

In fact the Old English suffix survives with altered spelling and pronunciation in words like "evil" (-fel became -vil), "awful" (-fel became -ful'), and "baleful" (from Old English bealo meaning "evil" + -fel).

  • 5
    What's your source? Online Etymology Dictionary disagrees with all of your derivations. Not saying it's right and you're wrong, but I'd like to see the counterarguments and evidence. Commented Apr 3, 2021 at 13:16
  • 2
    Is this perhaps related to Danish fæl (meaning ugly, bad, disgusting)?
    – Stefan
    Commented Apr 3, 2021 at 15:20
  • 2
    OED agrees about Middle English, gives some other allegedly-equally-old meanings such as "shrewd" and "deceitful". It doesn't say anything about an OE suffix antecedent, but rather says the word came into ME from Middle French. It reckons "evil" is hundreds of years earlier in English than "fell" (though the earliest form is "yfel") and derives it from other-language sources like Old Saxon "ubil" that don't seem to relate to an alleged -fel(l) suffix. It says awful = awe + -ful and baleful = bale + -ful, with no mention of an alleged -fel(l) suffix. Commented Apr 4, 2021 at 9:57
  • 1
    (sorry, OED there is the Oxford English Dictionary; I'm not just repeating what Tim Pederick said) Commented Apr 4, 2021 at 9:58
  • 2
    Wiktionary's page for "fell" does claim there's an OE "-fel" used only in compounds from which ME "fel(l)" is derived. It also mentions an alleged OE "ealfelo" where that -felo is the same suffix, though it doesn't claim that "evil" is derived from that. There's another OE word on that page that happens to resemble "awful"; it doesn't claim that "awful" is derived from that. The Wiktionary pages for "awful" and "evil" don't mention any OE -fel, nor those particular words, in their etymologies. Commented Apr 4, 2021 at 10:17

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .