1580s, "handy, dexterous, having special manual ability," apparently from East Anglian dialectal cliver "expert at seizing," perhaps from East Frisian klüfer "skillful," or Norwegian dialectic klover "ready, skillful," and perhaps influenced by Old English clifer "claw, hand" (early usages seem to refer to dexterity). Or perhaps akin to Old Norse kleyfr "easy to split," from Proto-Germanic *klaubri‑ from PIE root *gleubh- "to tear apart, cleave." Extension to intellect is first recorded 1704.
This is a low word, scarcely ever used but in burlesque or conversation; and applied to any thing a man likes, without a settled meaning. [Johnson, 1755]
The meaning has narrowed since, but clever also often in old use and dialect meant "well-shaped, attractive-looking" and in late 18c. and 19c. American English sometimes "good-natured, agreeable." Related: Cleverly; cleverness.
Proto-Indo-European root meaning "to tear apart, cleave."
It is the hypothetical source of/evidence for its existence is provided by: Greek glyphe "a carving," glyphein "to hollow out, cut out with a knife, engrave, carve;" Latin glubere "to peel, shell, strip;" Old High German klioban, Old English cleofan, Old Norse kljufa "to cleave," Old Norse klofi, Middle Dutch clove "a cleft."
"a shifty contrivance or clever trick," 1630s, from dodge (v.). Revived or reformed in early 19c.
"one who makes use of fallacious arguments," mid-15c., earlier sophister (late 14c.), from Latin sophista, sophistes, from Greek sophistes "a master of one's craft; a wise or prudent man, one clever in matters of daily life," from sophizesthai "to become wise or learned," from sophos "skilled in a handicraft, cunning in one's craft; clever in matters of everyday life, shrewd; skilled in the sciences, learned; clever; too clever," of unknown origin. Greek sophistes came to mean "one who gives intellectual instruction for pay," and at Athens, contrasted with "philosopher," it became a term of contempt.
Sophists taught before the development of logic and grammar, when skill in reasoning and in disputation could not be accurately distinguished, and thus they came to attach great value to quibbles, which soon brought them into contempt. [Century Dictionary]
1731, "clever, sharp, smart," shortening of acute; informal sense of "pretty" is by 1834, American English colloquial and student slang. Related: Cutely; cuteness.