Not too long ago I had a week or so of Macbeth. Who knows why? In the space of seven days the Scottish Play thrust itself into my awareness a half-dozen times. And oddly enough, most of the attention fell on a single scene: the bit where Macduff, having gone off to England, learns that his wife and babies have been killed at Macbeth’s bidding.
That’s the scene that gave the language one of its gem-like phrases: “one fell swoop.” Macduff is grieving over the sudden, simultaneous loss of his whole family. Leave aside the worry whether he sacrificed them to gain tough-guy street cred with Macbeth. He uses a hawk-in-the-hen-yard metaphor, speaking of his chicks and their dam, and the hell-kite, or hawk from hell, that snatches them out of life in “one fell swoop.” It’s a murderous attack, swift and evil. “Fell” here is a lovely touch. Its poetic resonance sounds out the depth of resolute wickedness, determined malice.
I found one definition of “fell” that identified it as a Scots term meaning “sharp and biting.” Another etymology traces it to Old French, and connects it with “felon.” It’s a nasty word. Or rather, a good word for nastiness. In a fell swoop, something truly awful happens suddenly.
So it was a bit odd to note recently that the director of a major museum, commenting on the tremendous advance made by a single gift of dozens and dozens of important paintings, said, “In one fell swoop this puts [the museum] at the forefront of early-20th-century art.” Well, not so fell a swoop, that. A fair swoop, rather. A very fair one, as swoops go.
So is this a pedantic observation? “Fell” isn’t a word you meet with every day. And in my experience, it’s always in this swooping Shakespearean phrase. If the phrase loses its baleful connotation, then “fell” vanishes pretty much entirely. It’s just a redundant syllable in a phrase that will have come to mean “all in one go,” in a neutral way. And that will be a loss.
People who study language tell us that change is the norm. Words shift and slide. Words disappear, get invented, change meanings. “Whom” seems to be going the way of “forsooth,” and the antecedent “anyone” seems ready to accept “their” as its possessive. But, oh, I hope not to see “it’s” become possessive. I think there are some differences worth retaining and so, sometimes, good reasons for resisting the drift of usage. In general, when words get worn so smooth that they no longer offer us the opportunity to deliver precise differences, or differences of tone and flavor, we lose something.
It seems to me a good thing to have at hand the different resonances and connotations of “fell,” “wicked,” “evil,” “malicious,” “heinous,” and whatever else lurks in the thesaurus in the neighborhood of “bad.” At the very least, having “fell” around keeps rich our vocabulary of moral discrimination. And it preserves the depth of this rhyme, likely from the 17th century:
I do not like thee, Dr. Fell.
The reason why, I cannot tell.
But this I know, and know full well:
I do not like thee, Dr. Fell.