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Origin of “Too Clever by Half”

We say "by half" to emphasize the degree of something in an idiomatic way, and often as a slight on the person we're talking about. For example,

He's too clever by half. You're too complacent by half. He was too good a teacher by half for that school.

How did this phrase originate? What relevance does "half" have to do with the superlative nature of an attribute?

marked as duplicate by Daniel, FumbleFingers, Robusto, James Waldby - jwpat7, J.R. Mar 22 '12 at 21:49

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  • @Daniel: I would have been first to closevote the dup - but I spent too long by half perusing my own answer to the original to make sure it was up to snuff! – FumbleFingers Mar 22 '12 at 20:44

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