The Meaning of Naff
People often ask me what “naff” means. This is because I have a license plate with NAFF on it. Its a tongue in cheek joke, because personalized number plates are a bit naff in the UK.
I have found it difficult to answer the question … until I came across this in the Guardian. I never knew what a colorful history the word had. Enjoy the descriptions and the trans-Atlantic dialogue!
“What does “naff” mean? The word doesn’t exist in US slang and defies the best efforts of my British friends to define it. They tell me that naff-ness is close in meaning to “kitsch” and “camp” and “naive bad taste” but that none of these definitions is spot on. Can the Guardian readers do a better job of defining it?
Peter Post, Boston USA
- I heard that it originated in the TV sitcom Porridge as a non-expletive representation of prison language which permitted the series to be shown at peak viewing times. Since the 70’s, the word has been recycled and used for other purposes in the finest tradition of the linguistic corruption that haunts the English language, and probably others too.
Andy Millward, Broxbourne, UK
‘Naff’ originated in the gay slang ‘Polari’ (as made popular by ‘Julian and Sandy’ in the 60’s BBC radio programme ‘Round the Horne’). It originally meant ‘not available for fucking’, ie ‘straight’ – and therefore boring.
Thompson, Allerod, Denmark
- I have heard it is old gay slang (called Polari?) and is an acronym for Not Available For F*cking, ie something unpleasant to be avoided. I believe Princess Anne brought it into common usage in the early seventies by telling some photographers to ‘naff off’ (or ‘naff orf’.)
Hugh, London, UK
- Naff is polari (or palare), the gay urban secret language developed in London to ensure conversational privacy in public when talking about gay sex or insulting straight people. Polari was widespread in London, and particularly in the theatre, from the 1940s-1960s, suffered a decline in the 1970s and 1980s, and has had a revival since the 1990s. It consists of snippets of Italian, Latin, Spanish, Yiddish, Cockney Rhyming Slang, Black-slang and acronyms. Naff is an example of the latter – Normal As Fuck – and means drab, unfashionable, dull. By extension, it is a defining characteristic of straight people, who lack the style and swagger of the urban homosexual.
Gerard Forde, London, UK
- I would suggest that “naff” in the UK would equate with “lame” or similar in the US. It would be like, “look at those brown, flare, corduroy, sweatpants that guy is wearing!” “Yeah, they’re completely naff!”
Sibhan, London UK
- It means ‘unimpressive’.
Joe Myall, Kurume, Japan
- Completely lacking in all aesthetic style or grace. Shell suits, for example.
Marula, London, UK
- What’s a shell suit?
Peter Post, Boston, USA
- Oh dear, what’s a shell suit? ‘Track pants’ and ‘sweat top’ made of rustly nylon that’d make your teeth itch, in horrid (horrid horrid) colours, either neons or pastels (the more colours, the naffer). For ultimate naffness your shell suit will match that worn by your partner.
Marula, London UK
- Naff simply means extremely tacky and distasteful.
J Bean, London
- So far, the chequered career of ‘naff’ as a naughty word has been overlooked. It originated as a euphemism for the female genitals (from Ang-Saxon, nafala which meant, and became, navel) and in the 19th century, it was a fairly common slang term. This might explain its use in ‘naff off’ which is much less strong now than previously and perhaps it’s use in gay slang for a straight man. Compare the career of ‘pussy’ which began as a perfectly medical Norse word for the vagina, and which, due to its unfortunate double meaning has become increasingly taboo since the 1600s.
Roddy Lumsden, London UK
- Remember naff naff clothing. In the mid 80s you could buy stuff from markets across the uk. Coincidently they were cheap and poor quality. Maybe their downfall was due to this or perhaps the unfortunate name??
Allan, Glasgow Scotland
- Sorry Allan, but “Naff Naff” clothind, a french label, was actually spelt Naf Naf, and although the clothing may well have been of poor quality, it was certainly not cheap; the more fashionably rich girls in our school waering the genuine article bought form boutiques, the rest of us making do with cheap rip-offs from the market.
Claire, Sheffield UK
- At the risk of cross-posting, I always thought Naf-Naf clothing was an excellent example of a British lack of ironic sense. (And before anyone posts to the contrary, you could just *tell* it was a *lack* of irony).
- Shell-suits ARE naff, then. We call the velour version the “Atlantic City tuxedo.” Naff might be what southerners in the US call (capital T) Tacky.
Vanessa Sudnik, Tampa US
Next time someone asks me I will respond with “tacky with a capital T”… and I promise not to mention their shell suit. 😉