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One foul swoop

December 19, 2011

I am currently reading, for review, Simon Reynolds’ book, Retromania, all about how contemporary music seems to be able to do nothing but feed off its own past. It’s a clever, erudite, well-argued book which will get a good review from me; but about three-quarters of the way through I was flabbergasted to read the malapropistic phrase ‘one foul swoop’. Of course the phrase should be ‘one fell swoop’ – it’s a quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, back in the days when fell meant terrible, said by MacDuff when he learns Macbeth has had his (MacDuff’s) wife and children murdered; the image is of a bird of prey descending in one fell swoop to destroy all of MacDuff’s ‘pretty little chickens’. It’s possible that Reynolds was making some sort of pun, but I don’t think so; I’ve heard people make this mistake before, so it’s not a special coinage for the occasion. More likely is that Reynolds – despite evidently being very well-read – just didn’t happen to know the correct expression, through one of those curious lacunae we all have, and passed on the malapropistic version he’d heard. About four years ago I was amazed to find, in an AS Philosophy class I was teaching, that out of a  class of about twenty seventeen-year-olds, only one had even heard the expression one fell swoop, and even he wasn’t sure what it meant.  It’s a sad thing to note, but as our language steadily moves further away from Shakespeare’s, his language will grow more and more incomprehensible and many of the famous tags we’ve taken from him will get mangled or simply drop out of use. After all, fell doesn’t mean terrible any more, and hasn’t for centuries – is it surprising if people substitute a word that they know? Still, I would have thought that even if Reynolds didn’t know the correct expression, someone at Faber and Faber would have.

The review will appear in the Independent on Sunday on 15th January, by the way.

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5 Comments
  1. Simon R permalink

    it’s just a bit of pun, Brandon

    (i have a weakness for wordplay, and alliteration)

    “foul” because of John Oswald’s evident distaste for all the music he’s sampling — the record under discussion is composed of fragments from pop songs at their most grossly histrionic and melodramatic

    thanks in advance for the review

  2. Simon R permalink

    but your larger point is definitely true

    there’s also loads of phrase-and-fable type sayings that people (including me i’m sure) use without knowing the literal meaning

  3. How about “Lead on, Macduff”, which i’ve only recently realised I’ve been misquoting? Good article on http://www.historyhouse.co.uk/articles/macbeth.html

    • Yes – you’re right – it’s ‘Lay on Macduff,’ isn’t it, which basically means ‘Bring it on!” I think I might do a posting about Shakespeare misquotes – thanks!

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