In BrEng, at least in the North, there is an idiom:

"You don't look too clever."

which means

"You're looking quite ill."

Does anybody know the etymology of this idiom please?

  • 1
    I'm not aware of those being "idioms" in the strictest sense of the word. They seem like normal sentence constructions to me: You don't seem very bright = You don't look very intelligent = You're not exactly what I would call the sharpest tool in the shed. The last one is an idiom.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 8:06
  • 2
    I think you might have read the question wrongly. You don't have the meaning correct. It's used to describe somebody who looks unwell. It's nothing to do with intelligence. Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 8:07
  • Ops, sorry I just read the first and second lines without realizing that the second is the "translation" of the first.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 8:08
  • related: 'Not feeling clever' - how far does this extend?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 8:14
  • Perhaps @WS2 could answer the etymology question for you....
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 8:18

1 Answer 1


It doesn't give the origin, but it is recognised by the OED as sense 5b of clever. see below. It is certainly well understood and used in Norfolk, and I feel sure I have heard Londoners use it.

5b. ‘Active’ as opposed to ‘infirm’; having ordinary healthy activity; in health, well. dial.

?1746 ‘T. Bobbin’ View Lancs. Dial. Gloss., Clever, skilful, very well.

1775 in Essex Inst. Hist. Coll. (1877) XIII. 196 Father was very clever last Saturday p.m.

1815 Massachusetts Spy 14 June I somehow did not feel quite clever, but hoped for the best.

1887 W. D. Parish & W. F. Shaw Dict. Kentish Dial. Clever, in good health. ‘How are you to-day?’ ‘Well, thankee, not very clever’, i.e. not very active; not up to much exertion.

1937 E. Partridge Dict. Slang 158/2 Not too clever, indisposed in health..is common in Australia and New Zealand.

  • Thanks for the answer. I've not been able to find the origin either. Hence this question. Commented Jun 6, 2015 at 8:23
  • It would not be idiomatic in most of the US, but would be readily understood, if the context were not too ambiguous. (It could also mean you just made a fool of yourself, in a different context.)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 6, 2015 at 11:30

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