Superannuated Syntax: For Such Fell Purpose

“Fell” needs to be resurrected in the adjectival sense, for my money. It’s a wonderful word used in that manner. I’ll wager you know the phrase “one fell swoop,” meaning “a swift and deadly stroke” (and if you don’t know it, you can read about it here). Unsurprisingly, that phrase comes from Shakespeare. Macbeth, actually. But I digress.

Although its adjectival usage is archaic these days, for writers of historical fiction it’s a terribly useful and evocative word. I used it that way in the title of this post, in fact. Would your villain speak that way during his not-really-a-victory speech? You know, the one just before the hero saves the day because the villain’s lost in gloating and not paying attention. “Fell” in that sense makes me think of melodramas with the pretty young woman bound and lying on the train tracks, as the mustache-twirling evildoer cackles and points  at Ol’ Number 75 hurtling toward her immobilized form.

And I think of Shakespeare (but I digress again).

Merriam-Webster tells us “fell” means “likely to cause of capable of causing death; violently unfriendly or aggressive in disposition.” See for yourself here and here. It’s related to “felon,” etymologically, through Middle English from Anglo-French, and dates to the 14th century. If you follow the links from “fell” to “felon,” you’ll see it traces ultimately to Germanic, similar to Old High German’s fillen. While today a felon is one who has committed a felony, historically the word was used to mean simply “villain.”

A felon’s fell function. There we go. Alliteration FTW.

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