Literally, IQ higher 50% higher than necessary - ie too nerdy. I don’t think there was a committee meeting to decide what the exact meaning was. It’s just like sharp as tack - there’s no direct relationship between the acuteness of a metallic point and IQ, but relationship is pretty clear.
You have its meaning. Why does it mean that? It’s always been intuitive to me, so I’ve never broken it down. The gist of it, as I think about it now, is that if a person was ‘smart enough’, his plan would come to fruition. But being 50% smarter than he needs to be, and having a great sense of his own intelligence, he can’t resist showing off – which is his downfall. If he were twice as smart as he needed to be, he’d know that a simpler plan is better. But he gets wound up in his own sublimely wicked scheme and doesn’t think that it could be foiled. Think: Vizzini.
I agree, except that my impression is that the phrase generally doesn’t imply nerdiness, so much – more a tendency towards the devious and manipulative. I’m thinking of the kind of employee whose innovative ideas boost sales by 50%, and then you find he’s started his own company and taken all your clients with him.
I can’t think of a specific example, but I feel I’ve seen this expression used to refer to someone who was poking into mysteries that they might better have left undisturbed. Something like this:
MISS HEROINE: But if the Duke hung himself, why wasn’t the chair near him? Someone must have placed it back in the corner after he died!
COUNT VON EVIL: I fear you are too clever by half, Miss Heroine.
In other words, Miss Heroine is too smart for her own good here. A person of average intelligence would have believed that the Duke had committed suicide, but Miss Heroine is 50% smarter than that and noticed the problem with this explanation. However, there’s also the suggestion that she’s nowhere near as smart as the villain (he thinks he is 100% smarter than average), and that if she were just a bit more intelligent she’d have realized the danger she was in and kept her suspicions to herself.
Of course, in a case like this Miss Heroine is sure to triumph in the end, so it’s Count von Evil who might more accurately be described as “too clever by half”. In general I’d say that it usually means roughly what Johnny L.A. said – someone who is smart enough to get into trouble in ways that wouldn’t have occurred to an ordinary person, but not smart enough to stay out of such trouble. Count von Evil is smart enough to plan a murder that would look like a suicide to the casual observer, but if he were really such a genius he either would have found some less criminal way to accomplish his goals or at least would have thought to leave the chair in the right place.
It’s an ironic way of saying that someone tried to be too clever (use more cleverness), but failed. Hence, the actual amount of cleverness was in fact half of what the perpetrator attempted. It’s ironic because when someone says “too clever” by some factor, you’d expect it to be a whole number to show that they’re a multiple of smart, but in this case they ended up being a fraction of smart for whatever reason.
I don’t think this can be right. If I said my salary was increased “by half” that would mean I was now being paid 50% more than what I’d been paid before, not 50% less. The expression “too smart by half” might suggest that the person in question isn’t as smart as they think they are, but the literal meaning can only be that they’re 50% smarter than they should be.
I’ve sometimes seen “too rich by half” to indicate that someone has more money than is good for them. A quick Google also shows “too rich by half” used to describe something that is too rich in detail or flavor for the speaker’s tastes, as in “his prose is rich – too rich by half!” This is obviously not a complaint that the prose isn’t rich enough.
“increased by half” is not necessarily the same metaphor as “too much by half”.
I don’t doubt that people say this and mean it, though I’d consider that a corruption of the original sense.
I disagree. I think you’ve chosen a perfect canonical example of the phrase but misanalyzed it. If prose is “too rich by half” then the speaker means its richness has been diminished by inept efforts to increase its richness. Likewise “too clever by half” means the cleverness has been diminished by ineptly applied cleverness.
In the big picture, yes, but it doesn’t mean directly diminished. It means too clever BY HALF AGAIN (i.e., 50% MORE) what would have been sufficient to achieve the goal, to the point of overdoing it and thwarting the goal.
“NOT clever ENOUGH by half” could be construed as only 50% of what was needed, but “TOO clever by half” clearly means there was MORE cleverness than needed.
“Increased by half” isn’t a metaphor at all. It means exactly what it says, that something had been increased by 50%. “Too [something] by half” similarly has the literal meaning of something being excessive by 50%, although it isn’t necessarily used in this literal sense. “Too smart by half” isn’t a compliment to the person’s great intelligence, after all. But this:
doesn’t make sense. The literal meaning of “too much by half” can only be that the ideal quantity has been increased by half, not reduced by half. The latter would be “not enough by half”.
Once you’ve thwarted the goal, though, are we still talking about cleverness anymore? Excessively applied cleverness is effectively the same as inadequate cleverness if it ends up defeating the goal.
But anyway, none of that matters. We’ve got 2 competing schools of thought here:
1: Cleverness that is excessive because it is self-defeating
2: Cleverness that is excessive because it is unnecessary or distasteful in some way.
I’m pretty sure it’s #1, regardless of whether you characterize the agent as having 50% or 150% of normal cleverness.