Too clever by half

Posted by R. Berg on May 29, 2001

In Reply to: Clever posted by hj on May 29, 2001

: when you say one is "too clever by half", why half??

"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."