The indefatigable Nancy Friedman sends along a sentence from a New Yorker blog post by Adam Gopnik: “Then Bob Dylan showed up from Minnesota—telling various tales about places he had never actually been, with his naff, made-up name—having nothing but genius.”

She sent it along, of course, because Gopnik (a native Canadian who has lived in the U.S. and written for American publications for numerous decades) used the word naff.

The OED defines the adjective as “Unfashionable, vulgar; lacking in style, inept; worthless, faulty.” The first citation is a 1966 quote from  B. Took & M. Feldman in B. Took, Best of ‘Round the Horne’ (1989): “I couldn’t be doing with a garden like this… I mean all them horrible little naff gnomes”

The OED has a lengthy etymological note, which I have slightly abridged:

Origin unknown . Probably unrelated to slightly earlier naff v.

Various theories have been proposed as to the origin of this word. It has been suggested that it is (in Polari slang: see polari n.) < naff in naff omi a dreary man (compare omee n.), in which naff may perhaps be < Italian gnaffa despicable person (16th cent.).

One of the most popular theories is the suggestion that the word is perhaps an acronym either < the initial letters of Normal As Fuck , or < the initial letters of Not Available For Fucking , but this seems to be a later rationalization. O.E.D. Suppl. (1976) compares the earlier English regional (northern) forms naffhead , naffin , naffy , all denoting a simpleton or idiot (see Eng. Dial. Dict. s.v. Naff v.), and also niff-naff n., niffy-naffy adj., and nyaff n., nyaff v.

The OED defines the “unrelated” verb naff, bluntly, as “fuck,” and notes it is often followed by off.

The etymology may be unknown, but it is unquestionably the case that naff is British to the core. I searched the entire run of The New Yorker (which has been publishing since 1925) and found seven previous naffs. Six either referred to a person named Naff or were spoken or written by British people. The seventh was from, yes, Adam Gopnik, who wrote in 2004: “Being an expert on wine and writing about it is what the English call ‘naff,’ embarrassing and uncool…” (“Uncool” is right, but I’m not sure about “embarrassing.”)

The New York Times has been publishing since 1851, so has printed naff more than the New Yorker, though not that much more. Twenty-one times in the Times’ pages, the word either been uttered or written by a British person, or presented as a British term. On three occasions, it has been used by the fashion writers Suzy Menkes and Cathy Horyn. That leaves this quote, from a 1999 review of Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice: “An English author, one fears, would have found it ”naff,’ embarrassing, to point out what a hansom cab is…”

The writer of the review? Adam Gopnik.

20 thoughts on ““Naff”

  1. I recall (British) scriptwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais saying that they invented the phrase ‘naff off’ for their now classic sit-com Porridge, which was set in a prison.

    The show was written in the early 1970s and they needed some swear words for the inmates that would be allowed in a family BBC show. There wasn’t a single existing expletive they could put in front of ‘off’ that would get approved. So they decided upon the word naff. It subsequently caught on amongst the general population.

  2. The “Round The Horne” (1960’s BBC Radio comedy) usage of “naff” would’ve been Polari (Gay slang) in origin, and used liberally by the Julian and Sandy characters, who got away with a great deal of risque material because the BBC censors were not too familiar with Polari!

    1. …or perhaps they were perfectly familiar with Polari, but unwilling to reveal this fact to the world at large. I’ve often thought that the Beeb knew exactly what Julian and Sandy were on about (classic example, Julian and Sandy running a law firm, Bona Law, claiming they “had a criminal practise that took up most of their time”).

  3. I have a vague memory of the Princess Royal (Princess Anne) telling some press photographers to “naff off” during an equestrian competition. I think using it as the verb is far more unusual.

  4. As a youngster, I understood “naff” to be derived somehow from backslang for “fanny” (the english kind, not the american kind).

    DW, “Lame” does not come close to capturing the contradictions embedded in “naff”. If something is naff it has pretensions to good taste but achieves mediocrity at best. Everyone recognises lame when they see it but, like kitsch, naff can fool most of the people most of the time.

  5. Perhaps a better US equivalent might be “tacky”?

    Incidentally, another derivation I’ve heard is from NAAFI, which was an organisation that provided canteen service for the armed forces. (I think the Goon Show once did an episode called “The Jet-Propelled NAAFI”.)

  6. Naff seems to have joined “funky” (which means “the smell of sex”) in the world of acceptable words.

  7. I think”naff” means lower middle-class (it’s always class in Britain, isn’t it?). “Tacky”, to me, suggests something cheap and nasty. Back in the day, an M&S jumper was considered very”naff”. Maybe that’s changed nowadays?

    Do any Brits out there use the term “Sid-ish”? Very similar to naff, I think.

  8. “Naff” is an incredibly useful word, often used with an adverb such as “awfully” or “frightfully”. I don’t think anybody has nailed a synonym above. It doesn’t quite mean “tacky”. There are definite lower middle class implications (things which are naff are often attempts to be classy), but it can also refer to things which are generally a bit rubbish or twee. I wouldn’t say it means embarrassing. It was the subject of an entire book called The Complete Naff Guide by Kit Bryson (1984 – available on Abe Books) in which everything naff in the world was listed and categorised.

    1. For the record, I heard London’s Will Hodgkinson (originally from Newcastle), chief rock & pop critic for /The Times/, use it tonight in a repeat of the 2014 “Dire Straits” episode of /Rock Legends/ in reference to the band’s hit, “Money for Nothing.” If I recall the quote correctly, he called the song, “brilliant but naff.” https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5057586/

  9. Part of the Lyrics to the song”Twisted” (Wayne G 1999)
    I’m sick and tired
    Of shit drugs
    And naph-queens
    D’you know what that means?
    It’s over
    I’m bored o’ you
    You can’t keep up
    And i don’t wanna come down
    Is there anyone out there
    Who isn’t bad luck
    Ride with me
    I don’t give a fuck.

  10. Pingback: Outliers

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