Half == Partly

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It's common to see half used to mean something much vaguer than "1/2" or "one of two equal parts", and as a result, things sometimes end up with three or more halves. A nice recent example (from Megan Twohey and Jacob Bernstein, "The ‘Lady of the House’ Who Was Long Entangled With Jeffrey Epstein", NYT 7/15/2019):

Shortly after Ghislaine Maxwell arrived in New York from England in the early 1990s, she was looking for a new start. She had just lost her father, a British media mogul, along with much of her family fortune and her social standing.

Soon she was on the rise with the help of her new boyfriend, Jeffrey Epstein, a rich financier. It was the beginning of a mutually beneficial relationship. With Mr. Epstein, Ms. Maxwell was able to resurrect the lifestyle she coveted. […]

Euan Rellie, an investment banker who attended dinner parties that she and Mr. Epstein hosted in New York, said she “seemed to be half ex-girlfriend, half employee, half best friend, and fixer.”

The OED glosses "half, adv." as

To the extent or amount of half. Hence loosely: In part, partially; to a certain extent, in some degree.

And in the entry for "half, n.", the OED notes that

The oldest sense in all the languages is ‘side’

Expressions like "the larger half"  — and the historically related form "on behalf of" — make it clear that fractional exactness is not a central characteristic of this word. But the idea that a whole has two halves seems stronger: I think it would always have been odd to talk about "the six halves of a die". So "half A, half B, half C" can still raise eyebrows.



  1. Michael Lugo said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 8:33 am

    I would interpret phrases of the form "half X, half Y, and half Z" to mean that the person was doing more than a person could reasonably be expected to do.

    (However, I am a mathematician by training.)

  2. DCBob said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 9:18 am

    “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.” — Lawrence Peter Berra

  3. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 9:52 am

    ManBearPig is a half man, half bear and half pig.

  4. John said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 9:56 am

    Gallia est omnis dīvīsa in partēs trēs.

    'All Gaul is quartered into three halves'

  5. F said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 10:15 am

    Like Michael Lugo, I'm a mathematician by training, but I would interpret the various halves as overlapping in a sort of Venn diagram.

  6. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 10:42 am

    There's also the somewhat-dated, but still stubbornly persisting phrase "by half", used to mean, "some indeterminate amount less than the whole".


    (c. 1660) "Alas, the ignorance and misery of our times, is not that people are totally destitute of the principles of Christian Religion; but that they know them singly only, and apart; and so they know them but by halfes, […]"

  7. quodlibet said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 10:49 am

    She's a woman and a half.

  8. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 11:23 am

    I make it four halves, taking into account the Oxford comma before "and fixer".

  9. Stephen Goranson said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 11:25 am

    Reminds me of the Car Guys (on NPR radio) introducing the show's "third half."

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 12:12 pm

    The "one of two parts" core sense seems much much stronger to me than a "one of two parts, each of exactly 50.000% of the whole and qualitatively indistinguishable from each other" refinement does. Qualitative differences can be seen in idioms like "better half" and "stronger half"; quantitative differences not only by "larger half" as noted in the original post but in the classic parenting strategy of inviting one child to cut a piece of cake "in half" but giving the other child first choice of which of the resulting pieces to eat. By contrast, I find "half" meaning "one of definitely-more-than-two parts of a given, single whole" decidedly odd-sounding. Maybe Mr. Rellie's ear has a different sensibility than mine does, or maybe when he started the sentence he had only thought as far ahead as "half A and half B" and by the point he realized that C and D should also be part of the mix the word "half" had already been uttered and he was kind of stuck.

    FWIW, the google n gram viewer shows myl's example of "larger half" as being much more common in the 19th century but sharply declining in rate of use over the course of the 20th. Not sure what that means but maybe someone has a hypothesis? The separate hypothesis I was testing, that "larger half" should be much more common than "largest half" (since the superlative would normally assume >2 halves to distinguish among), proved correct, but I had overlooked the possibility that you can have quite a lot of halves in a situation where there are multiple wholes of whatever the relevant thing is, as illustrated by this bit of detail from the "canned pineapple" section of one edition the Code of Federal Regulations:

    "(vii) Half slices. The diameter of the largest half slice does not exceed the diameter of the smallest half slice by more than 3 mm (0.12 in). The thickest half slice does not exceed the thinnest half slice by more than 3 mm (0.12 in.) in thickness."

  11. Roscoe said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 12:57 pm

    Dredged up from memory:

    The country's worst mathematician
    Said "Football's my greatest ambition!
    First half, I'm tight end,
    Second half, I defend,
    And the third half, I'm team statistician!"

  12. KevinM said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 1:03 pm

    I think the word "moiety" has undergone a similar evolution.

  13. Andreas Johansson said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 1:20 pm

    The diligent folks over at TVTropes have a whole page dedicated to excessive numbers of halves:


  14. Sean Richardson said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 1:36 pm

    One way of thinking about examples like this: where is the anchor for interpreting what is being said, the portions or the whole. Cut a pizza in half carelessly and it could be said that the two halves were lopsided, and still it would be natural to consider a while divided in two as now being two halves. Divide the pizza into more than two, and half would not be the word that comes to mind. So if the anchor is starting from a whole, there is a strong bias to consider the size of each of the halves as closer to an accurate division in two than not, certainly closer than to a division in three or any higher number.

    If the anchor is the portions, the indeterminacy of the size of each of the halves creates something of an indeterminacy of the size of the resulting whole, and sometimes that is more expressive. But I can't recall a usage of that expressiveness when the whole the halves add up to isn't already naturally a unitary whole. To be blunt: I think everyone who uses that expression is knowingly conflating the two ways of understanding half, for effect. The one of two of a whole meaning is just so unlikely to ever be unrecalled if at all apropos.

  15. maidhc said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 1:43 pm

    Just as "a couple" doesn't mean "exactly two", but rather some indeterminate small number. So a whole is made up of a couple of halves.

  16. Robert Coren said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 1:57 pm

    Is it possible that when Euan Rellie began that sentence, he[?] had had intended to specify only two roles, and thought of others while he was speaking?

  17. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 2:29 pm

    Rather "a couple halfs".

  18. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 2:46 pm

    I suppose one could read it as a Frankensteinian recipe: Take half an ex-girlfriend, add half an employee and half a best friend, stir in some fixer, and let stand.

  19. David Morris said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 3:56 pm

    An old schoolchild howler says "Handel was half-German, half-Italian and half-English. He was rather large."

  20. D.O. said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 4:43 pm

    (vii) Half slices.

    And these are the people who complain about EU regulating the curvature of cucumbers.

  21. cameron said,

    July 18, 2019 @ 1:08 am

    The well-known cockneyism "not half", in the sense of "completely", or "extremely", makes perfect sense if we take "half" to mean "partly".

  22. Michael Watts said,

    July 18, 2019 @ 2:48 am

    I remember a standup comedy bit about Reaganomics making a joke involving too many halves. As reported in the New York Times:

    Let's suppose your mom baked a big blueberry pie. Now that pie represents the wealth of this country. Now take that pie and cut it in half. The top half is defense spending. The bottom half is for domestic programs, and the other half is for the national debt.

    I always found this funny, but not in the way I was apparently supposed to. The bit goes on with the interviewer objecting "but Mr. President, that would be three halves, and a pie has only two halves"… and then degenerates into nonsense. Everyone seems to think the explanation doesn't work because it involves three halves. But it always made perfect sense to me to assign a blueberry pie's missing third half to the national debt.

  23. John Swindle said,

    July 18, 2019 @ 2:51 am

    To find out what "half" means in the examples, maybe we should ask what it adds to the description. Why is she "half ex-girlfriend, half employee, half best friend, and fixer" instead of "ex-girlfriend, employee, best friend, and fixer"?

  24. Alex Boulton said,

    July 18, 2019 @ 5:33 am

    There are 3 types of people in this world: those who can count, and those who can't.

  25. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 18, 2019 @ 7:47 am

    @cameron: in cryptic crossword cluing, "not half" means "half", my interpretation being that if you take away half you're left with half.

  26. Steve Bacher said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 3:38 pm

    With respect to the Car Guys (Tom & Ray Magliozzi), they began referring to the "third half" of the Car Talk show immediately after the program went from a single station break (two 30-minute program segments) to two station breaks (three 20-minute program segments). At the time there were some expectations of the show moving to a commercial network, or possibly even NPR inserting actual ads. Neither ever happened. But it was clear that the hosts were throwing some shade on the recent change.

  27. BZ said,

    July 23, 2019 @ 11:53 am

    For some reason I cannot get my head around half meaning anything other than 50%. I mean it's such a clear cut thing. On the other hand, the assertion that "couple" can only mean 2 seems ridiculous to me. If you wanted to say 2 then say 2.

  28. Nicki said,

    July 23, 2019 @ 11:40 pm

    Top half, bottom half, left half, right half, that's four halves right there!

    As for "a couple of" , I was an adult when I realized that for many people, it did not mean "a few" but rather precisely two.

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