Q From Robert L Sharp: The Economist often gives me a new word, but I’m confused by its reference to the British entertainer Bruce Forsyth: ‘The jokes he makes in his high-camp nasal voice are too naff for reproduction in an upmarket newspaper. Yet Mr Forsyth is the improbable face of Britain’s favourite television programme.’ Is naff an odd way to spell naif?
A No, it’s a word in its own right, though it’s one that has a mysterious and intriguing history. Something that’s naff in Britain (and also in Australia) is inferior and lacks taste or style. I’d not describe Brucie’s jokes by that word, though they’re often so old they have whiskers on.
Many attempts have been made to explain the origin, which are made more difficult by there being not only an adjective but also a verb, which usually appears as the impolite instruction to naff off!, an obvious euphemism for fuck off!
The adjective featured in a famous BBC radio comedy series of the 1960s, Round the Horne, written by Barry Took and Marty Feldman. A regular sketch featured a couple of gay men named Julian and Sandy, who frequently used naff as a term of abuse: “I couldn’t be doing with a garden like this... I mean all them horrible little naff gnomes.” Round the Horne certainly brought the word into the wider British vocabulary. It became famous later when Princess Anne was reported to have told photographers to naff off when they snapped her coming off her horse and taking a ducking at the Badminton Horse Trials (though a reporter who was there told me some years ago during a radio broadcast that this was a euphemism by journalists reporting the incident and that Anne actually used the F-word.)
To what extent the verb and adjective are connected is disputed. The verb is recorded some years earlier (in 1959 in Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse) and may simply be a variation on eff off, where eff is a written version of the letter F, meaning fuck, as in to eff and blind, to use vulgar expletives.
Some hold that naff is an acronym based on the phrase Not Available For Fucking, though if it ever existed it was a post-hoc reinterpretation. Some dictionaries, such as Collins and Chambers, suggest that it was formed as backslang from fan, a short form of fanny in the British sense of the female genitals. The idea that it derives from NAAFI, the Navy, Army, and Air Force Institutes, who provide canteens and shops for British service personnel, is a stretch too far.
More sensible is the idea that it comes from dialect, either from the northern English naffy, naffhead, or naffin for an idiot or simpleton, or Scots nyaff, a puny or insignificant person.
But the most plausible origin takes us back to Julian and Sandy. Their patois was Polari, the old showmen’s private language that had been taken up by homosexuals. If naff is from Polari, as in phrases like naff omi, a dreary man, it’s most probably from the sixteenth-century Italian gnaffa, a despicable person.