What does "a certain air of" mean? I met it in the Chapter 3 of "A Study in Scarlet" by sir A. C. Doyle:

He was a man with some amount of self-importance and a certain air of command.

  • A certain dictionary definition is relevant here: (specific but not explicitly named or stated) Commented Jan 22, 2016 at 13:20
  • @FumbleFingers I've just re-looked at this from 2016, as someone up-voted my answer. I remain convinced that the OP's example is OED sense 7, which your quoted dictionary reference does not seemto cover. I think your's is more in line with sense 1. "A certain person always asks the same question..." which refers to a known specific person. However if I say "In order to make it work one would need a certain amount of help" - "certain" does not refer to anything specific - an unknown and/or unspecified amount. That seems to me more in line with the Conan Doyle example. Anyway - happy new year!
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 7, 2021 at 14:24
  • You're quite right. Obviously I don't specifically remember posting my link - but in my defence, I did only say it was a "relevant" definition. Anyway, apparently I never saw your answer, which was posted a bit later. So (belated) happy new year to you too, and please accept my seriously belated upvote! :) Commented Feb 8, 2021 at 12:22

2 Answers 2


It means to exude an impression of command. You know, some people just give off a feeling that they are a certain way. It is not always a tangible thing that you can point to, it is often a mixture of obvious confidence and how they present themselves, and sometimes you pick up subconscious clues from how others around that person are deferring to them. But you just get a feeling that this person is a certain way - in this case of being a leader.

The flip side to that is the phrase "putting on airs" which is a derogatory term that a person is acting superior when they are not.


The word certain is being used in a frequently encountered sense, aptly described by the OED as its meaning 7d.

I looked at the link in @Fumble Fingers comment, but felt instinctively that the inclusion of specific as part of the definition was not entirely correct. I think the OED is right in not not including any implication of specific.

7d. Of positive yet restricted (or of positive even if restricted) quantity, amount, or degree; of some extent at least.

a1538 T. Starkey Dial. Pole & Lupset (1989) 9 Ther ys a certyn equyte & justyce among al natyonys & pepul.

1711 J. Addison Spectator No. 106. ¶6 His Virtues..are as it were tinged by a certain Extravagance.

1763 F. Brooke Hist. Lady Julia Mandeville I. 44 A prodigious passion for people of a certain rank, a phrase of which she is peculiarly fond.

1763 F. Brooke Hist. Lady Julia Mandeville I. 63, I knew her rage for title, tinsel, and ‘people of a certain rank’.

1810 G. Rose Diaries (1860) II. 476 Mr. Perceval..found a certain improvement in him.

1845 S. Austin tr. L. von Ranke Hist. Reformation in Germany III. 131 He kept up a certain degree of intercourse..with the Gonfaloniere Capponi.

1860 J. Tyndall Glaciers of Alps i. 123 The ice is disintegrated to a certain depth.

1875 W. S. Jevons Money (1878) 117 The bank makes a certain profit out of the business.

A synonymous expression to a certain air of, therefore might be to some extent an air of.

  • Incidentally, according to NGrams, the third most common word in the sequence a certain * of is degree (behind amount and number), which chimes with the to some extent paraphrasing. Commented Feb 8, 2021 at 12:25
  • @FumbleFingers As I often express scepticism about NGrams, it would be the action of a hypocrite to accept their endorsement for something I've said. But I'm glad that you agree. Thanks.
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 8, 2021 at 19:50

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