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Dr. Goodword
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Postby Dr. Goodword » Sun Jan 06, 2019 10:31 pm

• 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.)
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Re: Fell

Postby Pattie » Mon Jan 07, 2019 5:20 pm

Or, as is often said here in Australia, 'one foul swoop'. Which, during magpie breeding season, would be better expressed as 'one fowl swoop', given the propensity of these otherwise benign and amusing birds to attack unfortunate passersby. Prime subjects for the 'fowl swoop' are joggers and cyclists.

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Re: Fell

Postby bnjtokyo » Wed Jan 09, 2019 3:00 am

Interesting re-analysis/folk etymology suggesting that the vowels in "fell" and "foul" are becoming more similar in the Australian dialect while the evil meaning of fell is becoming remote to modern speakers.

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Re: Fell

Postby gwray » Thu Jan 17, 2019 3:18 pm

from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night:

O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purged the air of pestilence!
That instant was I turn'd into a hart;
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E'er since pursue me
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver Proverbs 25:11

David Myer
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Re: Fell

Postby David Myer » Tue Jan 22, 2019 5:57 pm

Thanks gwray for the Shakespeare quote. I went to see Twelfth night a couple of weeks ago at the main theatre in Melbourne, and that delightful piece escaped my attention. Well, I missed it.

And yes, Pattie, I am sure my Australian dog would agree with the fowl swoop. Every day on his walk, he is attacked by Australian Minah birds whose habitat he passes under. And they don't even wait for the breeding season.

Bnjtokyo is right. I hadn't considered it before. But fell and foul are remarkably similar in sound in the Australian vernacular. It's just sloppiness really, but if you fix your mouth into a set grin and say the two words, they do come out very similarly. That certainly explains why foul swoops are so common here.

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