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Too clever by half

Posted by Smokey Stover on January 05, 2009 at 05:05

In Reply to: Too clever by half posted by Victoria S Dennis on January 04, 2009 at 13:42:

: : "Too clever by half". It would seem that the current meaning is that the excessive cleverness has undermined the result that the cleverness was intended to achieve. So what's the origin or am I wrong about the current usage?

: I'd say that that was one current meaning. You can still say that somebody is "too clever by half" and simply mean that he's far too clever to be trustworthy. (VSD)

The Oxford English Dictionary gives numerous examples, some dating from early in the history of the English language, of the use of "by half" or sometimes "by halves," in which it's simply the increase in volume or number or degree that counts. But "too clever by half," or too much of anything else "by half," shas come to mean too much of a good thing, so much as to lose credibility or force, as VSD has pointed out. It can be found at least since Sheridan's "School for Scandal" (1777; Act IV, Sc. 3): "Pshaw! he is too moral by half."

The actual phrase, "too clever by half," is cited by the OED from 1858: "G. J. WHYTE-MELVILLE Interpreter xli, Too clever by half."

On the other hand, there's a history of "by half" meaning half again as much, with no disparagement intended, as in these two earlier examples cited by the OED: "1638 BAKER tr. Balzac's Lett. (vol III.) 13 Shee is fayrer by one halfe than shee was before. 1658 COKAINE Trappolin I. i, 'Tis better by half than a soldier."

Mr. Helmholz wants to know about current usage. In the case of "too clever by half," the important part is "too clever." And since cleverness is usually considered a good thing, then we are talking about "too much of a good thing." The addition of "by half" as a measure of how much of an excess of this good thing there is, is just to provide a little more substance to the phrase, to give it more body and perhaps more "corroborative detail."