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After Shakespeare, in Macbeth, act iv, scene 3, where Macduff learns his wife and entire family are murdered:

Ro. Wife, Children, Servants, all that could be found. []
Macd. [] All my pretty ones?
Did you say All? Oh Hell-Kite! All?
What, All my pretty Chickens, and their Damme
At one fell swoope?

The imagery is of a bird of prey ("hell-kite") ransacking a whole nest at one blow. In later uses of the expression, the force of the metaphor is reduced or lost.


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one fell swoop (uncountable)

  1. (idiomatic) One stroke; one action or event achieves or accomplishes many results.
    Changing the oil lubricates the engine and removes debris in one fell swoop.
    • 1605, William Shakespeare, Macbeth, act iv, scene 3:
      What, All my pretty Chickens, and their Damme
      At one fell ſwoope?
    • 1922 February, James Joyce, Ulysses, Paris: Shakespeare & Co.; Sylvia Beach, OCLC 560090630; republished London: Published for the Egoist Press, London by John Rodker, Paris, October 1922, OCLC 2297483:
      , Episode 16:
      ...they might be hanging about there or simply marauders ready to decamp with whatever boodle they could in one fell swoop at a moment's notice, your money or your life, leaving you there to point a moral, gagged and garrotted.


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