“Too clever by half”
"Punch" cartoon, October 1864. Caption reads, "Little Girl. 'Oh, Aunty, baby's mouth is so funny--it's just like yours before you get out of bed--no, not one tooth!'"
Too smart for his/her/its own good (British clever being roughly equivalent to U.S. smart). OED notes the first use of … by half formulation in Sheridan’s 1780 School for Scandal–”Oh, he’s too moral by half”–and of too clever by half in 1858. As the Punch cartoon suggests, it quickly became a popular catchphrase and remains so.
Google Ngram shows an interesting (and common) pattern in U.S. and Britain. British use peaks in about 1980, then declines. American use has roughly doubled since 1950. Currently, use is about equal in both countries.
British use of "too clever by half," 1850-2008
American use of "too clever by half," 1850-2008
Some Republican leaders, like their Democratic counterparts, find [Richard] Darman too clever by half. (Elizabeth Drew, the New Yorker, April 9, 1990)/Everything in Hartford seems too clever by half. (TheDay.com [New London, Ct.], June 12, 2011)
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