• fell •
Pronunciation: fel • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: 1. Evil, cruel, wicked, deadly, fierce. 2. Deadly, lethal. 3. (Literary) Shrewd, clever, cunning. 4. Suddenly and all at once.
Notes: This word is heard most often in the Shakespearean idiom 'one fell swoop', meaning "all at one time murderously". Shakespeare put the idiom in the mouth of Macduff in describing the murder of his family and servants in Macbeth. Today's Good Word has nothing to do with the verbs fall or fell, as will become clearer in the Word History. The comparative of this word is feller, and the superlative is fellest. The noun is fellness.
In Play: This adjective is available for regular service aside from the Shakespearean idiom: "Sterling was explaining the odd coincidence of how the first two of his three wives both died from eating poisonous mushrooms, when he was asked, "How did the third die?" "From a fell blow to the head," he replied: "She wouldn't eat the mushrooms."
Word History: This word was borrowed from Old French fel "cruel, fierce, vicious", from Medieval Latin fello, felonis "villain". Old French has another word, felon, with the same meaning, which English borrowed as a noun. Latin fello was apparently borrowed from some Germanic language with the shift of [p] to [f], for Latin has a word pellere "to beat, strike" with a similar meaning but without the Germanic consonant shift. However, we have no written evidence of such a borrowing. (Let's all thank Tony Bowden of London in one fell swoop for submitting such a surprisingly Good Word as today's.)