clever by half

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Wed Aug 4 16:43:47 UTC 2010

  Just to account for the header:

OED has "by half" back to the 10th century [half n. 7.e.], so I am not
about to improve on that. But "[too] clever by half" is only quoted from
1858 forward.

After a couple of nice finds in the 1840s, this seemes to be earliest,
for the moment.
The Lancet. London: 1832
Reply of Mr, Costello to the letters published in defence of Baron's
Heurteloup's new mode for breaking stones in the bladder. July 16, 1832.
p. 533
> You are too clever by half, Mr. Briggs.

The search was strictly through GB, so there should be room for improvement.

It did occur to me to also search for "too X by half". OED 7.e. has 1777
as earliest (with several much earlier "by half" expressions without the
contrary implication).

The first hit is from Love's Labour's Lost (Act V Scene II).
> The letter is too long by half a mile.

Although there are plenty of other citations from 1667-1730, none come
close to Shakespeare.  On the other hand, it's not the same usage--"too
long by half a mile" is not "too long by half".

The next earliest comes from a 20th century printing of Rabelais. The
cover claims the translation to be from 1653. (p. 120)
> A Turd on 't, said the Skipper to his preaching Passenger, what a
> fidle fadle have we here ? There is too long a Lecture by half, sell
> him one if thou wilt; if thou won't, don't let the Man lose more time.

If that's not sufficient, there is an authentic 1667 piece.
Cassandra: the fam'd romance. The whole work: in five parts. By Gaultier
de Coste La Calprenède. Transl. by Sir Charles Cotterell. London: 1667.
Book VI. [Following the letter from] Prince Oroondates to Arsacomes. p. 148
> Behold my poor Master, yet once again in the wide world ; behold him
> more passionate then ever and behold him burning and flaming, even in
> the midst of the waves that carried him ; his Barque though it cut
> them with a wonderful swiftness, seem'd too slow by half to his
> desires ; and though the winde carried us with a stiffe and favourable
> gale directly toward /Byzantium/, yet did it not swell our Sails
> sufficiently to satisfie the eagerness of his love, nor blow
> impetuously enough to second the impatiency that transported him ; ...


On 8/4/2010 11:43 AM, Victor Steinbok wrote:
>  No, I am not trying to antedate the expression. This is a very minor
> observation, with no particular suggestions or conclusions intended.
> Watching reruns of an earlier season of Top Chef, I noticed that an
> Italian chef kept referring to a cleaver as "clever". It's actually
> not particularly surprising considering, for example, "measure". But
> it's hard to tell if it's eggcornish or has roots in the Italian of
> the chef or is simply an ESL issue.
>     VS-)

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