One Fell Swoop, Cultural Literacy at Work

I was commenting on Belle's Literacy Blog today and I used a phrase I absolutely knew the meaning of but had no idea how or when I acquired this. Happens all the time, right? Now that we've embarked on a discussion of cultural literacy, I'm encouraged to think deeply about these vague notions of ideas as I encounter them in my life. My comment to her post poignantly phrased "If you learn to understand, then, you'll be understood" was:
I appreciate your ways with words (cultural reference intended).
I especially enjoyed your synopsis/views on our November 4th class. Cultural literacy is such a daunting subject to tackle because it is the nexus of our beings and it encompasses our ever-evolving philosophy as educators.
In one fell swoop, you've addressed the personal and the abstract.
(Having just used a phrase I'm sure is an example of the vague notions that entail Hirsch's cultural literacy, I'll have to do some research and post my findings.)

So I looked up "one fell swoop" and found that, of all the people in all the places, it was popularized by Shakespeare in Macbeth!

Michael Quinion of World Wide Words shares,
The phrase is one of those fixed expressions that we hardly think about most of the time. It means all at once, suddenly. It’s been around in the language for at least 400 years. Shakespeare is first recorded as using it, in Macbeth: when Macduff hears that his family has been murdered, he says in disbelief:

All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

The image that Shakespeare’s audience would have brought to mind at once was a falcon plummeting out of the sky to snatch its prey (like the kite for example, which was a bird of prey long before it became an aerial machine). You might guess that fell has something to do with fall, but it hasn’t. It actually means some thing of terrible evil or deadly ferocity. We now never see it outside this fixed phrase (or perhaps only occasionally in poetic use) but once it was a common word in its own right. One of its relatives is still about: felon, which comes from the same Old French source, fel, evil. Originally a felon was a cruel or wicked person; only later did the word evolve to mean a person who commits a serious crime.

Other similar answers can be found by your favorite search engine.

Have you experienced of cultural literacy in a similar manner?
Share your thoughts and we can compare notes.

No comments:

Post a Comment