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The phrase "Too Clever by Half" is used to criticize someone for being overconfident in their thinking.

What is the origin of this phrase?

I read somewhere that it started as a backhanded compliment meant to imply that they are only half clever, but I couldn't find any corroboration.

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I tend to parse it as meaning one and a half times as clever as one ought to be. –  Karl Knechtel Nov 22 '11 at 0:49
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I love the recursive nature of this saying. Instead of just saying "overly clever", "Too clever by half" is itself, too clever by half. –  Andrew Vit Nov 22 '11 at 3:44
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If anyone cares, I found my source for the (apparently incorrect) explanation in this political article: dailykos.com/story/2011/11/20/1038284/… –  Michael La Voie Nov 23 '11 at 1:52

8 Answers 8

up vote 11 down vote accepted

From Google Books, here's a couple of thousand for too slow by half and a few hundred too quick by half. Even a couple of dozen too fat by half, and I'm sure there are plenty more adjectives you can be too much of by half.

The earliest usage I can find is Too Civil by Half A Farce in Two Acts by John Dent (1783), which the reviewer judges "Too dull by half!" Obviously it was a current expression even then. Maybe someone else will find an earlier instance, but I doubt the expression has a literary origin.

Richard Lovell Edgeworth Popular tales, 1837 has "Why, my horse Dobbin has more sense by half!", showing that it's not always too [adjective] by half.

I think OP's "only half clever" explanation is unlikely, not least because it wouldn't make any sense at all in Edgeworth's usage above. The actual fraction probably never had any significance - adding "by half" just happens to be the idiom used to add emphasis in these constructions.


If someone is too clever by half it often means they are irritatingly devious and manipulating, rather than actually very clever (the implication being that the speaker, and probably many others, see through the trickery).

Here's another (slightly different) definition from The Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary...

too clever by half - too confident of your own intelligence in a way that annoys other people.

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Especially based on the other examples you provide I have to assume my source was just wrong. Thanks for the great explanation! –  Michael La Voie Nov 23 '11 at 1:51
    
I could always be wrong too - it's by no means unknown, to be truthful! But the great thing about ELU is when you are wrong there's always someone else around to put you straight. Note that it's certainly not considered "good form" to accuse the revisionist of being too clever by half. –  FumbleFingers Nov 23 '11 at 2:01
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Gee whiz, if that isn’t sesquicleverly put, I don’t know what is! :) –  tchrist Nov 21 '12 at 1:24

"Too adjective by quantity" means something has quantity too much adjective. So someone who is too clever by half has 50% too much cleverness, i.e. 150% of their nominal amount of cleverness. As to why this would be bad, the cleverness might result in an over-complicated solution to a problem, where someone with just enough cleverness would solve it more simply.

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Too clever by half means someone is too clever for their own good. They're not just clever, not just too clever, but even more so than that. It's exaggerating for effect.

Too clever by half appeared in print in the early 19th century, but too [something] by half is older, found in the 16th century. And the simpler by half older still, with evidence from before 1400 and 1000.


Too clever by half

The actual phrase too clever by half seems to be fairly recent and initally used somewhat jocularly. The earliest I found is from Ovid in London, a ludicrous poem, by a member of the University of Oxford (1814):

Aye, rejoin'd his bright spouse, he's too clever by half, For he makes such attempts that I never can laugh — Thus meaning to shew her good man was a calf.

Cries Ovid, ah! what inexpressible fun!!
I find you're a rare dab, bright Sir, at a pun. —
Aye, rejoin'd his bright spouse, he's too clever by half,
For he makes such attempts that I never can laugh —
Thus meaning to shew her good man was a calf.


From the American Masonick Record and Albany Literary Journal, Volume 4 (February 20, 1830):

... at the comers of streets by those who have an excess of logical discrimination, and have to pay a certain tax for being too clever by half.

There may be exceptions indeed to ordinary rules, on which a man may go to martyrdom and a stake (such as that of HAMPDEN and ship money,) but these occur once in a century, and are only met with at the comers of streets by those who have an excess of logical discrimination, and have to pay a certain tax for being too clever by half.


The Examiner newspaper of February 4, 1838 includes it in quotes, and uses it to refer to someone trying too hard to be clever:

But who would trust men so much "too clever by half ?"

Like the wondrous wise man of Thessaly, who having scratched out his eyes by jumping into one quickset hedge, thought to scratch them in again by the same clever move into another, they [the Tories] would promise and vow to scratch in a new Ministry as they had scratched out the old one. But who would trust men so much "too clever by half ?" "We have lost you," they would have to say, "the bird in your hand, but it was expressly to catch for you the two fine birds, the phoenixes in the bush."

And The Examiner from February 11, 1838 has the following below a note "The following article was only in the Second Edition of our last Number", meaning it would have the same February 4 edition as above:

too clever by half

We should have at once pronounce it incredible that a hasty attack can have been hazarded, if we felt that we could calculate on the actions of Sir Francis Head; but all reasoning on probabilities is baffled by the rashness of that hair-brained officer, who, like some of our geniuses at home, will insist upon being "too clever by half," and will manage affairs so ingeniously, and with such recondite art, as to carry them to the closest verge of ruin.

The use of quotes suggest it was a fairly novel saying at the time, and usage becomes much more common in later decades, as this 4-gram chart shows.

Ngram

Source: Google Books Ngram Viewer


Too [something] by half

But the general phrase too [something] by half is much older. The earliest example I can find in Google Books of too [something] by half is in The French Academie (1586) by Pierre de La Primaudaye:

And when he told him that it was too much by halfe.hc replied thus

Perillus besought him to giue him some monie towards the mariage of his daughters, wherupon he gaue to him also 50 Talents. And when he told him that it was too much by halfe,he replied thus : If half be enough for thee to take,yet is not enough for me to giue.

Even though it could literally be too much money by half, I think "too much by half" here simply means "way too much".


William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost (1598):

The Letter is too long by halfe a mile

The Letter is too long by halfe a mile.

This says the half is half a mile, but it's figurative not literal; the letter is much too long.


An English translation of Du Bartas His Deuine Weekes and Workes (1613):

too weak for him by half

Like as a Lion, that hath tatterd heer
A goodly Heifer, there a lusty Steer,
There a strong Bull (too-weak for him by half),
There a fair Cow, there a tender Calf;


Oxford English Dictionary

Finally, the OED defines it:

by half: by a great deal; much, considerably, far. Esp. in phr. too clever by half: trying too hard to be clever.

Their first three quotations show by half is even older still:

  • [a1000 Boeth. Metr. xii. 18 Healfe þy swetre.]
  • ?a1400 Morte Arth. 2127 Thowe to hye arte by þe halfe, I hete þe in trouthe!
  • 1638 R. Baker tr. J. L. G. de Balzac New Epist. III. 13 Shee is fayrer by one halfe than shee was before.

They have quotations for too clever by half from 1858, 1889, 1944 and 1961.

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Unofficial: "By half" reminds me of "half three" in English, which is "half past three" or, 3:30;" whereas, in German the same phrase "halb drei" means 2:30. So, "too clever by half" seems to me to mean "half past clever." This would indicate beyond clever and toward annoying (to my mind). Just a thought...

P.S. My mentioning the German "halb dree" is - too clever by half. It was unnecessary and took this explanation into the realm of a touch annoying. :)

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I look at it as a continuum. If someone is too clever by half it means that half of the person's cleverness consists of too much cleverness.

|Not Clever------------------------|Too Clever---------------------------------|Too Clever by 1/2

That would mean that half of the person's cleverness is beyond too clever. This phrase would communicate that his cleverness is twice as much as too clever, which by definition would be overly (and probably annoyingly) clever.

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My sense, it's similar in meaning to "too smart for her own good" or "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing"; outsmarting oneself.

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This doesn't add anything to the existing answers. –  Chenmunka Apr 12 at 17:45

He's "too clever" -- cut in half = not as clever as he appears to be

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Do you have any evidence for the origin of this? –  Chenmunka Apr 25 at 8:23

I think "too clever by half" suggests that the argument in question may not only answer the question involved but, unfortunately, points to further problems which undercut the original cleverness of the solution.

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I think the other answers address more completely what this phrase means. I think it can mean that their "cleverness" undercuts their solution directly, but I think the point is that clever that is not prudent is not very clever. –  virmaior Feb 10 at 1:03

protected by tchrist Aug 13 at 14:38

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