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.
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!