Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Signifiers

Notes on Naff

Naffness is not an idea. It is a sensibility.

Sean Wyer

On a Thursday afternoon in October 2019, an art and literature seminar met on a patch of lawn on the University of California’s Berkeley campus to discuss C.S. Lewis’s relationship with the Christian mystical tradition. The conversation took a tangential turn toward a collective appreciation of the talking animals Mr. and Mrs. Beaver from The Chronicles of Narnia. I suggested to our tutor and to my fellow students that portrayals of these characters provided some of the greatest moments of unintentional comedy in the screen adaptations of the Narnia books. Take, for example, the 1988 BBC television version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in which two actors in human-sized beaver costumes play the Beavers. The whole setup, I remarked, was incredibly naff. Our tutor, raised in Germany, and my fellow graduate students, raised largely in North America, had no idea what I meant by this.

I was prepared to use new words for old things in my adopted home: I knew that I would have to compliment people on their sweaters, rather than their jumpers, and ask for the check rather than the bill. This, however, was not a case of simply swapping out one near equivalent for another. I had not been prepared for a conceptual lacuna of this magnitude. I knew, of course, that every language had its own untranslatable concepts. What I did not expect was that this would be true between the British and American dialects of English—much less that the concept would be naff. I grasped in vain for a synonym, and wasn’t satisfied with my on-the-spot approximation: “in the same ballpark as kitsch or camp, but also sort of rubbish.” Google, too, was of limited help. The Free Dictionary offered “unstylish, clichéd, or outmoded,” or “inferior; in poor taste,” neither of which, I felt, went to the root of the concept.

There is a commonly held perception that the untranslatable words in a language can reveal something essential about the character of its speakers. Consider hygge, a Danish word that entered the British English lexicon in the mid-2010s. Hygge—a sense of happy, convivial, coziness—was marketed by publishers, and subsequently by other industries that seek to sell a certain lifestyle, as a quintessentially Danish phenomenon. In The Guardian, journalist Charlotte Higgins noted that hygge does indeed reflect some quintessential elements of Danish culture, but not in the uncomplicated way its PR team had imagined. Hygge, Higgins argued, may well convey a sense of warm coziness, but also, and crucially, it relies on the desire for “retreat, an escape, a turning-inwards,” a motif present both in Danish culture and in the British Zeitgeist of 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum. So if hygge can tell us something important about Denmark, and about tensions between actual and imagined Denmarks, what, I wondered, might naffness reveal about Britain and its culture?

Naffness is not an idea; like hygge, it is a sensibility. As Susan Sontag writes in “Notes on Camp,” “a sensibility (as distinct from an idea) [is] one of the hardest things to talk about.” I therefore approach this task with some trepidation. Naffness might well count among those things which, “like the elephant, [are] characterized more by recognition when encountered than by definition.”

I have always found this Elephant Test to be a wholly unsatisfactory method of classification. A person needs to have spent a certain amount of time among depictions or descriptions of elephants, or better still, real elephants, in order to apply this otherwise unhelpful test. So, too, would a person with little to no experience of things being referred to as naff find it impossible to identify naffness upon seeing it. It is primarily with such a person in mind that I have compiled a series of notes for the aspiring connoisseur, the amateur naff spotter.

  1. Much writing on naffness is dedicated to etymological speculation. This is understandable: To the casual observer, naff does not have an immediately obvious Romance or Germanic root. Not all of its origin stories are equally plausible, but each one tells us something about an element of its contemporary meaning.

    a. Polari slang, which has roots in gay and theater subcultures, among others, contains the phrase naff omee, with omee meaning “man” (ultimately from the Latin homo), and naff possibly deriving from Romany naflo (no good, broken, useless) or from the sixteenth-century Italian gnaffa, a despicable person. Naff is indeed used to describe a subcategory of things that are bad, and the proposed Romany root emphasizes an element of failure or inutility which the current meaning certainly carries.

    b. The Oxford English Dictionary all but dismisses popular theories that naff might derive from the first letters of “Normal As Fuck” or “Not Available For Fucking,” speculating that these “seem...to be later rationalization[s],” that is, backronyms. That may well be so, but the plausibility and persistence of both of these proposed origins nonetheless speak to a prominent feature of naffness. As with the Polari etymology, these acronyms imply a sense of a subculture casting judgment on an element of mainstream culture. One might well imagine a person being described as “not available for fucking,” in that they are boringly, depressingly, obviously heterosexual, and therefore naff. Naffness therefore suggests an in-group and an out-group, although the question of who might occupy these groups is an area where naffness differs from camp. It is highly likely that the sort of person who might employ camp as a disparaging term, that is, to criticize over-the-top theatricality, would be himself naff, in the sense that these acronyms carry. Where camp implies something of the baroque, a going-too-far, naffness is more often a not-going-far-enough.

    c. The OED also compares the term to northern English regional slang, including naffhead and naffy, used to describe a simpleton. To describe something as naff, therefore, might imply that you have the ability to perceive something in it that its creator was too dull to recognize.
  2. In the spirit of Sontag, following are some random examples of items that are part of the canon of naffness:

    •  garden gnomes

    •  corporate team-building exercises

    •  plastic souvenir snow globes

    •  the vast majority of new and minor political parties

    •  wax sculptures

    •  vegetarian meat substitutes, until very, very recently

    •  Keep Calm and Carry On signs, and their derivatives

    •  themed bars

    •  monuments named after people who are still alive

    •  monogrammed shirts

  3. It is clear from the list of examples that naffness is related to kitsch, cliché, and tackiness. One of the central elements of kitsch, as defined by Tomáš Kulka in his 1996 book Kitsch and Art, is that it depicts a beautiful or highly emotionally charged subject. This is by no means a necessary feature of naffness, which is not even solely an aesthetic or artistic category. Some clichéd things are also naff, but ubiquity is not a prerequisite of naffness. Tackiness often denotes a level of tasteless exaggeration that distinguishes it from naffness; naffness implies undershooting a target, rather than its opposite.
  4. Naff and lame are not the same. Besides equating weakness or inferiority with a physical disability, lame is used in American slang simply to describe something as inadequate or clumsy, with none of the other important implications of calling something naff.
  5. Whereas “the pure examples of Camp are unintentional,” as Sontag observes, the only examples of naffness are unintentional. There are very few instances in which a person would aspire to naffness, which is almost always a failed attempt at something else. Sontag draws an important distinction between something that is “just bad” and something that is camp. Her description of things that are “just bad” unwittingly describes something very close to naffness avant la lettre: “When something is just bad [for which substitute naff]…it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish.”
  6. Nobody wants to be naff or to make something naff, but it’s quite all right to like something naff, or even to embrace something precisely because of its naffness. The postmodern cultural phenomenon of liking things ironically has bolstered this latter tendency.
  7.  As with all questions of taste, things that were once not naff at all can become so. A disparaging reference to “latte-drinking liberals” would not have been naff in 1997, when it first came to prominence. But in the 2020s, every fast-food chain does a roaring trade in all sorts of milk-based (and even milk substitute-based) coffee. “Latte liberal” has become a naff insult, because it has started to fail, and those who use it are likely to themselves be naff.

    Nonetheless, not all naff old things are made naff by the passing of time. Clippy, the Microsoft Office paperclip, appears anachronistic now, but was in fact always naff, because to my knowledge he never succeeded in carrying out his one job, which was to help you in any way to write a letter.
  8. Naffness can serve as a sort of shibboleth. This is the case in the immediately obvious sense of the word, that an understanding of naffness marks you as a speaker of British English. It is also true in the subtler sense that while some things are quintessentially naff and almost universally identifiable as such, there can be a subjective element to naffness. Some people will immediately recognize certain things as naff, while others will defend them against this charge (for example, stadium marriage proposals). Where you stand on debates such as these is likely to identify you as part of a certain group. For my money, stadium marriage proposals are very obviously naff.
  9. Naffness is not an inherently elitist phenomenon, as derision can punch up as well as down. Thus, the Sunday Times Rich List (or Forbes’s equivalent, for American readers) is as naff as a headline in the populist Daily Mirror (or New York Post), if not naffer still. Furthermore, its likely origin in Polari slang suggests that designating something as naff could have, at least in theory, a subversive or antiestablishment potential.
  10. Inauthenticity breeds naffness. As well as faux-Irish pubs, and rainbow-colored advertisements for banks that profit from operating in countries where homosexuality is punishable by death, any unsuccessful attempt to co-opt an identity or aesthetic runs the risk of naffness. Every instance of a thoroughly cosmopolitan politician feigning concern about immigration or pretending to enjoy a warm pint in a pub with multiple sports screens is an example of naffness.

Perhaps it is not the case that naffness could only possibly exist as a concept in Britain, but rather that the conditions of twentieth-century Britain were ripe for its dissemination. Naff entered British mainstream culture in the 1960s, but only achieved mass recognition in the 1980s. This was a time of great class anxiety, not just because of heightened struggle between the industrial working classes and the ruling elite, but also within the upper echelons of society, as new money vied against the old order for power and prestige. In this period of great upheaval, naff gave us a new opportunity to frame ourselves, the arbiters of naffness, as in the know. Poignantly, trying and failing to adopt the mores of a social class outside your own is in itself naff. Thus, the whole endeavor was a precarious one, and its eventual success unlikely.

Quite quickly, of course, naff followed the trajectory of most slang: It became just another word. I suspect that this happened around 1989, when its meaning was demystified for readers of The Spectator, that bastion of the British conservative press (itself not immune to bouts of naffness). Calling things naff stopped being the sole preserve of cool people, in much the same way that you are just as likely to hear something described as cool in the board meeting of an accountancy firm as in a boutique trainer (American translation: sneaker) store.

This entire endeavor has itself teetered on the edge of naffness: It has, I fear, fallen short of producing the kinds of poignant revelations about British culture that it initially promised to provide. Britain has a particularly keen eye for the naff, but this should not preclude other nations from developing the same. As did twentieth-century Britain, America is now living through its own period of intense class-based anxiety. I see naffness at every level of the US class hierarchy, and as such, see the urgent need for naff to make its journey across the Atlantic.

After all, in order to confront naffness, one must first name it.