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Is it "something " or "nothing "? Are there any equal words or phrases?

Dr. Hu Shih A Philosophe To a few, Dr. Hu Shih is either a good enemy or a very good friend. To the rest, he is a big brother ([a few Chinese characters I don't know how to reproduce are shown here])]. All own him to be affable and charming—even his worst foes. He knows all the graces of a gallant, without himself being a gallant. In all those little, but indispensable "airy nothings" which endear a man to society, especially to the company of ladies, Dr. Hu is an adept. He has the happy knack of making everybody feel at home in his company. The proud are flattered by his attentions; and nincompoops feel importantby his treatment of them as his equals. In the best sense of the word, Dr. Hu is a democrat: He has not a touch of social or intellectual snobbishness. Dr. Hu Keeps Open House on Sundays. Nobody then is refused entrance to his house. With everyone, whether student or communist or business man or robber, he is equally patient.


Dr. Hu Shih (胡适) was one of the most important historical characters of modern China. The material is from Imperfect Understanding, an essays collection. The writer, a learning British-Chinese, was his friend and thought highly of Dr. Hu Shih.

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    They are the little things he says and does that aren’t particularly important in the grand scheme of things but that make all the difference in how society and women view him.
    – Jim
    Apr 30, 2017 at 14:54

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You'll most often see this word paring in the idiom whisper empty nothings, which A Dictionary of Cliches by Eric Partridge defines this as meaning "Trivial or superficial remarks, empty compliments …" The concept here is that both words indicate that there is not very much substance to whatever is being whispered. The American Dictionary of the English Language by Noah Webster, which was first published in 1828, even defines airy as meaning:

4. Light as air; resembling air; thin; unsubstantial; without solidity; as, airy ghosts. An airy dress is one which admits air, and is cool.
5. Without reality; having no solid foundation; vain; trifling; as, an airy scheme; airy notions.

Unfortunately I lack as clear of a reference for nothing, but I doubt I should need it when you consider that whatever is being whispered is being called by such a descriptive name.

Airy nothings are used to curry favor with people for all the same reasons you might usually wish to curry favor with them, although it especially applies to the swindling and seduction of women as is exemplified by this quotation from the [Sunday] Journal, Volume 52, Number 96,Indianapolis, Marion County, 6 April 1902:

He was a superb courtier. He could whisper airy nothings with a grace of gesture and an eloquence of tongue which captivated women and made men envious. It was said of him that during his whole twenty years in Washington he never had to pay for his dinner. He was one of the public men who did not bring his wife to Washington. There are others.

I somehow doubt that the intention is to portray Dr. Hu Shih with such a bad character though, so much as it is to suggest that he is just a little too liberal with his compliments for them to mean as much as they might if they came from somebody who exercised some more cautious discrimination with his praise. Given the quotation marks, it might also not be so literally (and I say "literal" here mostly just for lack of a better way to put it) meant, as in he might also just be giving the sort of graceful compliments that would usually be considered airy nothings.

A related phrase is sweet nothings, which the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs defines as "affectionate but unimportant or meaningless words spoken to a loved one."

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  • Detailed explanation.Thank you so much! PS:Dr. Hu(胡适) was one of the most important historical characters of modern China. The material is from Imperfect Understanding, an essays collection. The writer ,a learning British-Chinese, was his friend and thought highly of Dr. Hu.
    – Maigebaoer
    May 1, 2017 at 8:45

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