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In this answer it is incidentally mentioned that よほどのこと means "something very unusual/extraordinary". I'm struggling to find this definition in a dictionary, no matter whether I look up the whole phrase or just よほど on its own. Though I did find it in a thesaurus with a synonym of 珍しい quite some way down the list.

It seems to come up most often in a Google search as よほどのことがない限り. Would it be safe to say that this can be treated as a set phrase? I see in the answer I linked that it is used as よほどのことがあった so I guess that's not quite the right answer.

In summary

  1. How does よほどのこと come to mean "something very unusual"?
  2. In which contexts/grammatical constructs is it safe to use?
  3. Is it a common phrase?
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    Perhaps part of the confusion could be because you are taking the word unusual here as synonymous with "strange" or "rare" (as in "their unusual behavior") when in fact the meaning intended is closer to "extreme" or "inordinate" (as in "their unusual strength")? – goldbrick Apr 10 '20 at 10:35
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よほどの/よほどな is a very common adjective that means "unusual/extraordinary (enough to explain/justify something)". The part in parentheses is important; this adjective is used in relation to another exceptional/unlikely event that needs explanation or justification. よっぽどの/よっぽどな is a synonym (sounds more colloquial). よほど/よっぽど also works as a standalone adverb.

余程 mainly modifies words related to "situation", such as こと, 事情, 状況, わけ, and 理由. But 余程のこと by itself is not a set phrase, and 余程 can modify almost any noun, as shown below.

Good Examples:

  • 余程の{理由/こと/事情}がない限り出席してください。
    Please attend unless you have a very good reason not to do so.
  • 余程の力で叩かないとこの扉は壊れないはずだ。
    This door should not break unless you hit it with a extreme force.
  • 娘を喜ばせるには、よっぽどのプレゼントじゃないとダメだろう。
    I'll need a really good/special present to please my daughter.
  • 彼が泣いた? よっぽどだったんだな。
    He cried? Then it must have been very intense.
  • よっぽどお金がないんだろう、彼は毎日パンだけ食べている。
    I guess he has very little money; he is eating only bread every day.

WRONG examples:

  • × 彼は余程の人です。(This does not mean "He is unusual.")
  • × 彼はよっぽど強い。(This does not mean "He is very strong." Use とても/すごく/etc instead.)

Actually these might have been acceptable many years ago, but you should not say them in modern Japanese.

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First of all, let me guess where your confusion comes from. Probably you have not looked up「よっぽど」yet.

Do you know that「余(っ)程」is read as 「よほど or よっぽど」and have same meaning, so I think naruto mentioned entry No.1 of「よっぽど」in the dictionary I linked.

Anyway,I will give my best shot to your summary:

  1. I am not sure about its etymology though, 「よほど/よっぽど」means "to a great degree" mainly. You might think「よほど/よっぽど疲れてたんだな」if your friends started to sleep on the couch just after coming back to the house. This one intensifies how tired they are.
  2. It depends on the context, in a different setting, I think it's more of a set phrase

・「普段{ふだん}は冷静{れいせい}な彼{かれ}が血相{けっそう}を変えて出ていった。余程{よほど/よっぽど}のことがあったに違いない。」:

"He, who usually was a calm guy, left with his face burning red. There must have been something serious had happened to him."

In this sentence, you can guess something wrong might have happened to him seeing his face. It's saying more of something urgent than something unexpected.

  1. I think it is kind of a common phrase.「よほどのことがない限り。」would describe both "unless a very important thing happens" and "it is really unlikely to happen".

Interestingly, the headline of this article explicitly states the possibility by quantity : 「新型{しんがた}コロナでも「東京オリンピック中止」の可能性は1%未満か」. So the possibility of cancellation of Tokyo Olympic (this year?) is estimated to be less than 1%.

And the author also states in the middle of article 「よほどのことがない限り、開催するでしょう。まさに「国家の威信にかけても」という感じですよね。」: The Olympic Game will be held unless something unusual happens. It is like a "on nation's pride".

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