Example (A Moscow of Dancing Feet, Under an Iron Fist):

There are optimists. Vladimir Milov, an opposition politician, said Russians care far more about the economy than foreign politics, and that the aggressive and nationalistic language only goes skin deep.

What exactly does that mean? Give me your interpretation please.

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    Milov believes that Russians are not aggressive and nationalistic inside, that the aggressive and nationalistic manifestations represent only a thin layer of their character. – CowperKettle Aug 9 '15 at 13:02

The skin deep idiom deals with the superficial as opposed to the substance. Here it's saying that the Russians care deeply about the economy but not "aggressive and nationalistic languages" which they care about more for appearance sake.

It comes from the expression "Beauty is only skin deep". Meaning there is more to a persons value then outward appearance. So it's use here is a little strained.

For contrast, the classic joke to follow "Beauty is only skin deep" is "But ugly goes right to the bone" which subverts the spirit of the expression.

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I am not sure that "language only goes skin deep" is a proper use of that idiom. The usual meaning (and you're advised to look it up in an idiom dictionary of your preference) is "only on the surface", and pertains most often to beauty. So, you encounter something like his/her "beauty is only skin deep" the most.

Feelings, sentiments, meanings, cannot really be "skin deep". The author of that text perhaps meant to say that the language is only "for show", as in "they don't really mean it", there is no deep rooted belief in the hostility of those against whom such language is directed.

Edited to add: Perhaps a bit more attention needs to be paid to the fact that in the quoted passage the "language" is said to go "skin deep", which on the second thought opens the possibility that the author meant the act of penetrating rather than appearance (to which "skin deep" usually refers)...

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  • Feelings and sentiments can be more and less shallow, and hence more and less deep. For example, if you say, "I love my child", and I say, "I love that tree on the corner of 3rd street," it might fairly be observed that while we may both be telling the truth, your love for your child is probably much deeper than my love for a neighbourhood tree. I don't think there is anything incorrect or unusual in the example. A lot of patriotic and political sentiment comes across as "skin deep"; it is not insincere, but it does not seem very deeply felt either. – goldilocks Aug 9 '15 at 13:53
  • I agree about the use of "deep" with respect to feelings, beliefs. However, the skin IMHO has nothing to do with it. The use of "skin" clearly suggests the visual aspect of whatever is said to be such. – Victor Bazarov Aug 9 '15 at 13:57
  • "Beauty is only skin deep," is used metaphorically in the same way that "there is more lurking beneath the surface" is. There does not have to be a literal physical surface, or anything visual involved beyond the metaphor. Try an internet search for "skin deep sentiment" (quoted as a phrase) for example uses. – goldilocks Aug 9 '15 at 14:00

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