Meaning A form of greeting or good-by, a social gesture usually done by pursing one’s lips to form a kiss and then making a kiss in the direction of the person for whom the kiss is intended. It is often done when just cheeks touch in a greeting or farewell.
Origin Gary Martin at ThePhraseFinder says “This gesture is usually considered insincere or childish and is a hallmark of contemporary showbiz society, especially of female American celebrities. It is often accompanied by a loud ‘mwah’ sound, as if to exaggerate the pretence of genuine kissing. The group that is most often associated with air kissing is that widely derided faction—the Maws (those who give their occupation as ‘Model/Actress/Whatever’—possibly with air quotes.
The phenomenon has become more common around the turn of the 21st century, as has the use of actual kissing of cheeks as a greeting — something that until the late 20th century was fairly rare in America or the UK. That may be because those who use it have spent some time on their make-up and don’t wish to spoil the effect. That accounts for its alternative name, the ‘near-miss kiss’.
Despite the recent popularity, the coining of the term isn’t that recent. It was first cited in an article in the Chicago Tribune in 1887, which described various forms of kissing:
‘Nothing is more dainty than the kiss of a well-bred chaperon, who, mindful of the time and trouble spent over the powder box, gently presses her lips on your hair just north of your ear. The minister’s wife is another sweet soul, who knows where a kiss will do least harm, and her favourite method is an air kiss, with the gentle pressure of her cheek to your cheek.’
In Malaysia and Indonesia an air kiss is used to “kiss” an elder’s hand, a sign of respect.