Skip to content

Category: Slippery Words

Which one swooped? Fowl, foul or fell?


A FOWL is a bird, like a pheasant, a chicken or a duck.

One tends to picture a Nineteenth Century English countryside with English gentlemen blasting the skies with their shotguns, hounds yapping at their heels eager to collect dead birds; That or fond memories of childhood. See Danny the Champion of the World.

They are not a swooping bird so much as a bird that gets swatted at.


An adjective meaning abhorrent or disgusting.

So we have;

  1. A foul deed;
  2. A foul stench; or,
  3. A foul play;

From where we get the noun, foul, meaning, in turn:

  1. To make shocking to the mind. As in, we all thought the bloody murder was foul;
  2. To be smelly, or on the nose. As in, your armpits are foul, go wash them; or,
  3. An illegal or unfair play. As in, the batter stuck the ball but it went off field and was a foul.

And Fell?

  1. Fell is the past tense of fall, sure, as is, I fell on my arse and broke my tail bone;
  2. It is also the verb, to fell, that is causing something to fall, as in, the lumberjack fell the tree causing it to fall;
  3. But perhaps most interestingly, it is an adjective meaning dangerous, wicked, cruel, or deadly, as in, the murderer spiced my drink with fell poison, upon which I did fall to the ground.This last meaning is little used and can most clearly be thought of as the nominative of felon, ie. when naming something particularly felonious. So for example we might say, of the felons that escaped prison, only one, a notoriously fell man, remained at large. 

It is in this final sense that we get the phrase, one fell swoop, meaning quickly, suddenly and dangerously so.

Like a lot of these historical phrases of uncertain origin, Shakespeare is a likely candidate.

In a particularly memorable and heartfelt moment, Macduff upon hearing that Macbeth has had his children and his wife killed, cries:

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

Macbeth (4.3.2099-2102)

It is some startling imagery. That Macbeth like a hell hawk has swooped down and snatched Macduff’s children (the chickens) and their dam (their demoiselle, or damsel, their mother).


Perhaps this imagery is how the confusion occurs.

A fowl swoop seems only natural, that a fowl might swoop, and indeed Macbeth’s fell swoop is in imagery at least a fowl one, it is also entirely conceivably a foul one.

Further I supposed we could imagine a foul fowl swoop, say a magpie attacking you from behind .

Yes, there is nothing wrong with saying a foul swoop: a particularly horrid swoop; or fowl swoop, being the swoop made by a pheasant, however I would absolutely avoid them even when you mean exactly that, and use only fell swoop to mean something that happens dangerously and wickedly, for that is it’s meaning.

Perhaps even quote a bit of Macbeth.


Eastwood, K. (2016, February 16). Magpies: Avian air raiders. Retrieved November 25, 2016, from
The Free Dictionary. (2016). fell - definition of fell in English. The Free Dictionary.
Dahl, R., & Blake, Q. (2002). Danny the champion of the world (Rev. ed). New York: A.A. Knopf.

Moot or Mute point? A Mote’s Point.

A mute is someone who doesn’t speak, they are mute on the matter, indeed they are mute on every matter.

I mute the television when the ads come on. Likewise, a mute might also mute the television if the phone rang and they wanted to hear what the other person was saying, though in no way could they respond – making their answering the phone somewhat moot.


Adj. Without consequence. Of little significance.

We have:

  1. a moot idea, an idea that has no inherent usefulness;
  2. a moot desire, that does not necessitate fulfilment;
    Or more classically:
  3. a moot point, that has little bearing on matters.

A mute point, is always incorrect.

It is either the point made by a mute, in which case you’d write “a mute’s point”. This I suppose is in the world of possibility though unlikely in a rhetorical sense.


It is a point that is silenced, in which case you’d write “the point was silenced”. This expression however screams of the misunderstanding of moot. For, rhetorically speaking, points are not silenced so much as they are made moot.

Moot 2.0

Or course all of this is only half right. Or, at least, made right through common usage in the USA, Australia, and elsewhere.

The verb, to moot, past participle, mooted, its adjective moot, and noun, mootedness, all mean something quite different from the above.

The OED defines it as “subject to debate”.

We can best see this meaning when we say, the point was mooted, meaning the point was raised for discussion or argument. A moot point in this context is in fact a point that is debatable, open for question, and indeed has consequence and significance.

Why the two quiet opposite meanings?

The Free Dictionary describes how a moot was used in legal training to mean a mock judicial proceeding set up to examine a hypothetical case, and that over time the meaning of moot shifted from being the making of an argument to the making of a hypothetical argument, or an argument without consequence.

Indeed this not the first time the meaning has shifted. Previously a moot (from the Middle English Mot or mote) meant simply a gathering, or a meeting to discuss and argue. Moot, meaning to raise for debate, stems from this previous meaning, just as moot meaning without consequence stems from the meaning of a legal training moot, being mock and hypothetical.

We see then that context is crucial, so one might say:

The point was invariably moot when God stepped out of the clouds and told us the truth;

or equally,

I mooted the point as I wanted to hear all sides of the case;

or if one was writing historical horror fiction (set in England),

The moot had gathered these last five years, and though time had blunted their fear, they were still no closer to forgetting the horrors of that day.

A Mote

A mote is a small flec of dust. It can not be mooted in any sense of the word. Though it can get in the eye of a mute. In which case it is quite annoying.


The Free Dictionary. (2016). moot - definition of moot in The Free Dictionary. Retrieved from
Oxford Dictionary. (2016). moot - definition of moot in English | Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford Dictionary. Retrieved from

Input, Imput – get it together people – putt putt

It is clearly input. But why?


I can put something, which is to say that I can place it, or give it, or present it.

Why? Put is a verb. Only.

  • I put the crown onto the frog. The crown however is not the “put”, it’s simply the crown.

I can however input something – type it in, place it in, draw it in – and I can also have input.

Input is a verb and a noun.

  • I input my blog into the inter-webs. Or. The inter-webs input is my blog. (note: no apostrophe s (‘s) on interwebs as it’s not possessive) 

The “in” is not a prefix!

If it was a prefix it would change the meaning of put to mean “not” put, as that is what the prefix “in” does.

For example:

incapable, not capable
incapacitated, without capacity
inconceivable, not conceivable


input, not put. Is wrong, as input is absolutely guaranteed to be put.

We get a better sense of how it’s come about from its antonym output, being stuff that’s come out.

Both of these words are, of course, compound words the joining of two words to create a new meaning.

Other examples include: backyard, courthouse, anywhere, thunderstorm, cupcake and, of course, inter-webs.


Imput then is clearly not a word, even though you see it everywhere.

Putt Putt

Putt putt is a kind of golf where you putt only. The object is to putt it only once each turn.

In-putt-putt is not a word form (neither is inputtputt, inputt, or ingolf).


Boswell, W. (2016, January 30). What does the term “Interweb” really mean? Retrieved November 29, 2016, from
Rube Goldberg machine. (2016). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from
Elowyn. (2008, August 15). Your Imput Needed. Retrieved November 21, 2016, from