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.

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