What is the exact meaning of deep in the following sentence:

Beauty is more than skin deep.

Is it an adverb in this case? If yes, what is the meaning? If not, what grammar rule is applied here?

3 Answers 3


I think we should consider skin and deep together as a single unit, skin-deep, and it works as an adjective.

To understand the structure, let's consider something simpler:

James is good.
James is a good man.

The two sentences basically say the same thing: James is a good man. Suppose that someone thinks that "good" is not enough to describe James. (James is probably a great person.) In other words, James is "more than good", they can say:

James is more than good.
James is more than a good man.

Obviously, good is an adjective describing James. This is the same structure as the structure of your example sentence: Beauty is more than skin-deep.

Here is how a dictionary defines the word skin-deep:

Not deep or lasting; superficial:
'their left-wing attitudes were only skin-deep'

So, to understand the meaning, your sentence can be rephrased to "Beauty is more than superficial."

  • 3
    To add to this: "skin deep" is the same construction that might be used, for example, in "waist high." If something is high enough that it comes up to your waist, we describe it as "waist high." If something is only deep enough to penetrate your skin, but not anything else, it is "skin deep," meaning shallow or superficial. The phrase you quoted is a play on the much more common idiom, "Beauty is only skin deep," or, in other words, choose your romantic partners for more important reasons than physical beauty.
    – chapka
    Commented May 9, 2014 at 19:40
  • @chapka That's a nice explanation! It's fine for me if you post that as an answer. (I think you should.) ;-) Commented May 9, 2014 at 19:48
  • PS. In my answer, I use good as an example to demonstrate the structure. At the time I wrote it, I wanted a better word than good, mainly because He is good and He is a good person usually don't mean the same thing, but I couldn't think of a better word, so I had to use it. Now I can think of a better word, smart. Usually, He is smart and He is a smart person mean the same thing, so it would be a better choice for those examples. However, I don't want to bump this answer up, so I write this down as a comment instead. Commented May 10, 2014 at 23:55

deep is an adjective. skin is a noun which forms a compound with the adjective, modifying its meaning: it answers the question "how deep?"

In general, when a noun modifies an adjective, it indicates that the adjective inherits the properties of the noun.


  • snow white = white like snow; as white as snow
  • sky high = as high as the sky (hyperbole meaning "very high")
  • dirt cheap = as inexpensive as dirt (hyperbole meaning "very cheap")
  • "The new guy is smart, but not Bob smart, you know? I miss Bob." (The new employee is smart, but not as smart as Bob. I wish Bob would come back.)
  • skin deep = (only) as deep as the skin (metaphor/simile for not very deep, superficial).
  • lightning fast = as fast as lightning (very fast)
  • rock hard = as hard as a rock (very hard)
  • ice cold = cold as ice (very cold)
  • stone cold = cold as a stone (cold due to being dead (inanimate like a stone), or emotionally cold)

As you can see, this grammatical construct is used not only literally, but also for metaphors and exaggerations. The likely reason is that it is very slick: only two words are used, but they carry a lot of meaning.

Note that this syntax is used for adjectives that denote something concrete and directly perceptible. For instance, "abstract" is an adjective, and "mathematics" is a noun which names a subject which is abstract. But we don't say "this is mathematics abstract" in place of "this is as abstract as mathematics".

Some of the combinations are canned phrases. For instance, we don't often hear "stone hard" as a substitute "rock hard" (but "diamond hard" and others are possible). However, there is a "stone cold" combination, which in turn is not substituted with "rock cold".

  • Thank you very much and +1 for your explanation and great examples.
    – mrmowji
    Commented May 10, 2014 at 10:44

Yes, deep is used as an adverb in this context, and means "to or at a considerable or specified depth."

The sentence may mean that beauty is not something superficial (skin deep), implying that beauty is something deeper: a question of personality rather than appearance.

  • Thank you for your answer. I totally understand the final meaning you gave. Is it kind of equivalent to Beauty is deeper than skin.?
    – mrmowji
    Commented May 9, 2014 at 17:21
  • And another question: You placed skin deep in the parentheses in front of something superficial. Why?
    – mrmowji
    Commented May 9, 2014 at 18:04
  • Skin deep is used to mean ' superficial'.
    – user5267
    Commented May 9, 2014 at 19:18

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