The Grammarphobia Blog

Naff lines

Q: My lovely British girlfriend and I were discussing the origin of the slang term “naff.” Her mother says it’s an acronym for “Not Available for Fucking.” This sounds dubious to me. Can you shed any light on the subject?

A: The origin of “naff” is uncertain, but the odds are that it’s not an acronym.

This British colloquialism (which means tasteless, vulgar, inferior, and the like) can be traced to the mid-1960s.

But, as the Oxford English Dictionary comments, the theory that it’s the acronym you mention “seems to be a later rationalization.”

Another theory, cited by William Safire in the New York Times in 1996, is that it’s short for “Naffi,” the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes, which have operated canteens for members of the British armed forces since 1921.

“If an item was naff, it was not fashionable,” Safire wrote. This too seems unlikely, since there seem to be no published references to back it up.

The OED‘s earliest citation is from a 1966 episode of the BBC radio comedy series Round the Horne, written by Barry Took and Marty Feldman.

One gay character says to another: “I couldn’t be doing with a garden like this. … I mean all them horrible little naff gnomes.”

Here’s another typical usage, from the Sunday Telegraph (1983): “It is naff to call your house The Gables, Mon Repos, or Dunroamin’.”

Though we can’t trace the etymology of “naff” precisely, there are many similarly spelled terms that might hold a clue.

In 19th-century Scottish and Irish English, a “nyaff” was a small object or a trifle. The word also meant, and is still used to mean, “a diminutive, insignificant, or contemptible person,” the OED says.

In the north of England, “naffhead,” “naffin,” and “naffy” were once regional terms for a simpleton or idiot.

And in the English spoken in Scotland, Ireland, and northern England, the OED says, a “niff-naff” is “a small person or thing; a trifle, a knick-knack” and a mass noun meaning “junk, clutter; petty concerns or detail.”

But my money is on yet another possibility, that “naff” may be traced to a 16th-century Italian word, gnaffa (a despicable person).

In Britain, the theory goes, this word was adapted into a patois called Polari (probably from the Italian parlare, “to talk”), in which it became “naff omi” (a dreary man), and eventually “naff.”

Polari, the OED explains, was “a form of slang incorporating Italianate words, rhyming slang, cant terms, and other elements of vocabulary.”

It originated in England in the 18th and 19th centuries “as a kind of secret language within various groups, including sailors, vagrants, circus people, entertainers, etc.”

“In the mid 20th cent.,” the OED adds, “a form of the language was taken up by some homosexuals, esp. in London.”

Since the gay characters in Round the Horne use “naff” as a term of derision, you can draw your own conclusions.

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