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In The Lord of The Rings, Bilbo says the following to his assembled guests at his eleventy first birthday party:

I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

What is the meaning of this quote? Is there more than one way to interpret it?

  • 1
    I always took it to mean that of all the attendees, half of them are people he doesn't know as well as he wants to, and less than half of them are people who he doesn't like as much as he should. – John Clifford Feb 29 '16 at 10:22
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    Don't be confused by the repetition of 'half'. Break down the sentence and you'll see what Bilbo meant soon enough. As for another way to interpret it... it's a bit of a 'if the shoe fits' thing, where some listeners might pick up on what can be construed as an insult. – Terah Feb 29 '16 at 10:22
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    (as a corollary to this, I imagine that in the latter case he's almost certainly referring mainly to Brandybucks) – John Clifford Feb 29 '16 at 10:26
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    I don't know most of you anywhere near as much as I'd like to. And I don't like most of you anywhere near as much as I should. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 29 '16 at 12:42
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It means I don’t know some of you very well, and a few of you I ought to like better. And he said it that way because he wanted to make it difficult for his guests to quite work out what he was saying. That’s why Tolkien writes in the next line:

This was unexpected and rather difficult. There was some scattered clapping, but most of them were trying to work it out and see if it came out to a compliment.

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    Jackson was doubtless spot on in having Gandalf give a wry grin. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 29 '16 at 12:31
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I think Cogitative is on the right track in breaking the statement into two parts for simpler analysis, but I'm not sure that I agree with half as much of his or her interpretation half as much as I ought.

My reading of

I don't know half of you half as well as I should like;

is that the speaker is expressing regret that he doesn't know most of his guests a lot better than he does. The other half he either knows well enough (or better than he'd like to) already or wishes that he knew only slightly better than he already does.

As for the second part of the sentence, I think that there are two very different ways to read it. One way to interpret

and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

is expansively, as being directed toward more than half of his guests—those who deserve twice the affection he actually has for them (so that he is implicitly criticizing himself for failing to esteem them as he should). According to this interpretation, the speaker is saying that more than half of his guests deserve to be liked considerably more than (specifically, twice as much as) he likes them. As for the remaining percentage of his guests, he either likes them (or dislikes them) to an appropriate degree, or he fails to like them as much as they deserve but by an amount that is less than twice his current level of affection for them.

Another way to interpret

and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

is narrowly, as being directed only to the "less than half of you" in the room. According to this interpretation, the speaker feels that he likes some proportion (below one-half) of the guests assembled far less than they deserve, but the actual number of guests who fall into that category could be very small indeed; and as for the rest of the guests, this part of the speaker's sentence doesn't address them at all.

No wonder the guests were perplexed by the speaker's remark.

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    I love how “he fails to like them by an amount that is less than twice his current level of affection for them” is just as opaque and brain-twisting as Bilbo’s original statement! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 5 '18 at 17:40
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To break it down:

  • "I don't know half of you half as well as I should like"

I really would like to know more of you, better. For example: "There's my nephew Feldic sitting in the corner - we haven't sat down to discuss our preferred beer for over 20 years! I don't even know the names of his children!"

Remember from the beginning of The Hobbit, that Bilbo was one for etiquette. He believed in saying and doing 'the right things' - an ordinary hobbit; no adventures here thank you very much.

  • "and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve"

In my opinion most of you are here for the free food and drink, and the hope to get your hands on Bilbo's 'sacks of treasure'... but I may be wrong. Please prove me wrong?

1

I know I'm late to the party, but...

I don't know half of you half as well as I should like;

He would like to have known more people than he does know.

and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

Less than half of those present, he thinks deserve to be liked more than he has realized before. The rest he likes exactly as much as he thinks they deserve (most likely meant as a rather scathing insult); which is the point I think has gotten lost in previous attempts at answering this.

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I think changing the halves into "many or some" gets past the math. More than half means many and less than half means some. And then the phrase "half as well" is "not as much" or "less than".

Both statements are expressions of regret because he is leaving and he is "immensely fond" of them.

"I don't know many of you as much as I'd like" - I wish I had time to know many you better.

"I like some of you less than you deserve" - I should have appreciated some of you more.

The language is a riddle which Bilbo enjoys and is good at as we saw in "The Hobbit" and it adds levity to his speech to hide that he is saying goodbye to everyone.

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I don't know half of you half as well as I should like

There's some ambiguity as to what the negation applies to. The straightforward parsing would be "It's not the case that I know half of you half as well as I would like" (In AmE, "should" in this context is unidiomatic, but I can't speak to its use in BrE). Then any situation other than him knowing exactly half of the people exactly half as he would like would be consistent with that statement. As that is so vacuous as to be almost completely meaningless, the natural interpretation is to take it instead to mean "For half of you, it is not the case that I know you half as well as I would like", i.e. "For half of you, I know you an amount other than half as well as I would like". That actually is rather vacuous itself, looking solely at the literal meaning. The natural assumption would be that he knows them an amount less that half as well as he would like, but technically he could mean that he knows them more than half as well as he would like.

and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

This means that, for less than half of the people, he likes them half as well as they deserve, so there's not much ambiguity for those people. But he's leaving open how large that set is, and what he's saying about the rest. "Less than half" could mean slightly less than half, or a tiny minority, or even none at less (after all, zero is less than half). As for the rest of them, he's not really saying anything at all. He could like them as much as they deserve, or more than they deserve, or really any amount at all other than exactly half as well as they deserve. So while he's implying that some people there deserve to be liked more than he likes them, he's not definitively saying that, and he could be interpreted as saying that the rest don't deserve to be liked.

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He doesn't care for half of them very much, and the other half he doesn't know well enough to even form an opinion.

So basically, he doesn't really like anyone is the point he is ultimately trying to get across, but saying it the way he did was his way of confusing them in to not realizing this.

It worked.

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