Friday, September 7, 2012

One fell swoop

"Suddenly, in a single action"

I started thinking about this phrase today because I realized I didn't know how to spell the second word. I quickly discovered that the main reason I didn't know how to spell it was because I was mispronouncing it. I always thought it was one foul/fowl swoop. Egg on my face.

So now that we know the correct way to say it (good for you if you've known it all along, smarty pants), the question is: where does it come from?

It is first attested by Shakespeare in Macbeth (1605):
     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 fact that Shakespeare was the first to write it down (that we know of) means one of two things: he coined it or it was an existing slang/idiomatic phrase. Shakespeare is the first attestation of many English words because he wrote very idiomatically, which was a revolutionary idea in his day. He also coined his share of words, but it can be hard to tease out what he invented and what he took from slang of various language groups around him.

Shakespeare's usage of one fell swoop gives up clues as to the origin of the meaning. A kite is a hunting bird, which swoops down to catch its prey. Fell in this context means something different than what Modern English speakers might expect: "fierce, savage, cruel." Over the centuries the sense of "savageness" was lost and we are left with a meaning of "all at once."

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Are you a language buff in the NYC area?

Starting later this month, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City is hosting a 5-part series entitled "Is Your Brain Wired for Language?"
The 2-hour Monday evening lectures will cover topics related to how our brains create language, how language shapes our brain, why learning language is so easy for children and so difficult for adults, and how the biology of language in the brain changes throughout our lifespans. Participants will also learn about the hardwired circuity that makes us good at language and what happens when the circuits go awry.

For tickets and exact dates, click here.

**For the record, I am not affiliated with the museum, The Mortimer D. Sackler Foundation, or this lecture series in any way. I just saw this opportunity and thought you might like to go!