Q&A: Fowl, foul or fell swoop?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we’re tackling a grammar gripe in one fell swoop…

Q: I have a lot of questions today, and was hoping you could answer them in one fowl swoop please?

A: You’d like us to use a chicken or some other bird?

Q: No, you know – the saying. Meaning to do everything at once? Yes?

A: Oh. It’s probably best you take a seat.

Q: Oh dear. You’re going to tell me it’s not about birds aren’t you?

A: It’s not about birds.

Q: But they swoop! Argh. I hate English.

A: You’re not alone.

Q: Just this morning my local magpie made a “fowl swoop” at me. I guess it was also a “foul swoop” too. I’m just so confused.

A: We feel your pain. And the swooping does point towards a feathered explanation. But in this case, it’s not that.

Q: So “foul swoop” then? Some kind of sporting reference maybe?

A: It’s not that one either.

Q: I’m crying foul about all this now.

A: If we’re talking about the phrase meaning to do something quickly and suddenly, then it’s actually “one fell swoop”.

Q: Fell? As in past tense of “fall”?

A: Yes, that’s the one.

Q: I’m going to assume it’s hiding some other meaning.

A: Yes, well, it has a couple. One is the verb “fell” – such as to fell a tree in the woods.

Q: Did the tree make a sound?

A: Not sure, we weren’t there.

Q: I think I know what sound it would make.

A: What?

Q: It would bark.

A: Oh dear. Anyway, so technically you could fell a tree in “one fell swoop”. This is where the other meaning of “fell” kicks in – an adjective to mean suddenly, wicked or dangerous and is related to the word “felon” – dangerous people. It lives on in sayings like this one.

Q: And the saying conveys the idea of something taking place all at once and very suddenly?

A: That’s right. It’s been around since Shakespeare was churning out the hits. In Macbeth, he even kills a bunch of chickens in “one fell swoop”. So you have the beginnings of that feathered confusion right there.

Q: Murder most fowl…

A: Very good. So, anything else today?

Q: Well I’m going to have to report us for this week’s chat.

A: Why would you do that?

Q: We used a lot of fowl language!

A: Oh for duck’s sake…

Q: Happy Year of the Rooster!

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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