Posted by ESC on May 25, 2004
In Reply to: Too cute by half posted by Fred on May 23, 2004
: Why 'half'? Wouldn't 'two' make more sense?
Here's some information from the archives:
"By half" is an idiom defined as "by a great deal; much, considerably, far" (Oxford English Dict.).
Example from the year 1400, approx.: "Thowe arte to hye by [the] halfe, I hete [the] in trouthe!" ("Morte Arthure"). I think this translates as "Thou art too high [proud? ambitious?] by the half, I promise thee in truth."
Example from 1777: "Pshaw! he is too moral by half" (Sheridan, "School for Scandal").
The dictionary doesn't say whether "by half" implies an exact fraction, but the phrase suggests to me "So-and-so is 50% more clever than he should be."