Faff, naff, chuffed and nous(e)


Faff, naff, chuffed and nous (rhyming with mouse). Oh dear: I’m going to miss Blighty.

“We’ve been sat in the car park for a good 15 minutes, faffing about with the satnav and trying to make Rupert’s new phone work.” — The Telegraph reporters at Glastonbury

“We will leave to one side the subtle humour – or otherwise – of Mr Cleese’s performance in the naff Pierce Brosnan Bond film Die Another Day.” — The Telegraph about 007’s latest

“’I’m afraid I have to default on these bonds.’ ‘No you do not!’ ‘Naff off, Gringo…'” — International Financing Review wondering what power a US court should have to determine whether a foreign sovereign nation can or cannot declare its ability to pay its debts. 

Chuffed to bits – Lewes Railway Station looks blooming lovely for summer” — Sussex Express on the transformation of Lewes Railway Station’s gardens and planters

“Former England striker Gary Lineker has expressed his belief that the Three Lions lacked tactical nous on the field in their World Cup defeats.” — Sports Mole on the World Cup.

Yeah — these colloquialisms are Britishisms at their very best. You’ll hear them only on one side of the Atlantic — the more eccentric side — but by gum do they do the trick for anyone who cares to use them. Isn’t faffing around just the perfect expression for that thing we all do sometimes when we’re very busy achieving sod all?

Here’s what the words mean and where they come from. And below them are 18 more that are equally expressive and quirky — and peculiar to us limeys.

Faff, as a verb, means to spend time engaging in ineffectual activity. And the noun, slightly less commonly used, means — you guessed — a great deal of ineffectual activity. From the late 18th century, it was originally used imitatively in the sense ‘blow in puffs’, describing the wind. The modern sense may have been influenced by the word faffle — to ‘stammer, stutter’, later to ‘flap in the wind’, which came to mean ‘fuss, dither’ at about the same time as faff, in the late 19th century.

Naff is a fantastic adjective meaning lame, tacky, cheap, low quality, or lacking in taste or style. Its origins are uncertain, although some suggest it might be slang for >fan, an old term for a vagina in the 1960s. Or perhaps it’s from Polari. As a verb (usually used in the imperative: naff off), it means to shove it, get lost, go away; it’s a less offensive alternative to “fuck off”. It’s thought to derive originally from obscure Polari slang, probably dating back to the 1950s, and it was made popular by the TV prison sitcom Porridge. It was also famously used by Princess Anne, the Queen’s daughter: as the BBC reported, “she once allegedly told photographers to “naff off” as they snapped her taking a ducking from her mount at the Badminton Horse Trials.”

Chuffed is what you are when you’re feeling proud, satisfied and pleased, all at the same time. Used from about 1860 in British dialect, it’s from the obsolete chuff meaning “swollen with fat” (from the 1520s). Now don’t you feel chuffed that you’ve mastered this great British adjective?

Nous is that thing you might rely on when you think you might be in a sticky wicket (see below): it’s common sense, or practical intelligence. Going back to 1706, it’s from the Greek nous, meaning mind or intellect.


boffin – an expert or person engaged in innovative research, such as a scientist or engineer; especially in aviation dating back to 1945 (probably from one of the “Mr. Boffins” of English literature — as in Our Mutual Friend)

bumf / bumph – useless paperwork or documentation (from “bum fodder”, toilet paper). “I got all this bumf about the course, and chucked it in the bin.”

doss, dosser – to be lazy, or to play truant: “dossing off” (similar to American bunking off). Also as a noun meaning something that is easy. “That was a doss.” Dosser is a lazy person or a tramp. 

fiddly – requiring dexterity (“That little device is too fiddly for me. Go and find someone with younger, smaller fingers.”)

(the) gods – the highest level of seating in a theater or stadium. (“We were up in the gods: we couldn’t see a thing.”)

grotty – disgusting, dirty, poor quality (originally from grotesque)

jiggery-pokery – expert tinkering with something in a way that a non-expert or casual observer is unlikely to get. 

knackered – exhausted, broken (originally ‘sexually exhausted’; derived from an old use of the verb — usually in past tense — meaning to kill or castrate from 1855)

nobble –  to sabotage or try to hinder in some way

poxy – something that is unsatisfactory or in generally bad condition (from pox, the disease, attested in English from 1899)

pukka – legitimate, the real thing, of good quality. Recently  popularized by chef Jamie Oliver (dates back to the 19th century; from Hindi-Urdu)

ropey – chancy, of poor quality, uncertain. (“Are we really getting on that boat? It looks a bit ropey to me.”)

sod, sod it, sod off, sod allsodterm of abuse (from 1818, short for sodomite); sod-all, meaning “nothing”, is attested from 1958; sod off, “go away”, from 1960.

sticky wicket – a difficult situation (from cricket)

suss out – figure out (from suspicion)

twee – excessively cute, quaint, or ‘precious’

whinge – complain, whine, especially repeated complaining about minor things 

witter – to continue to talk trivially about a subject long after the audience’s interest has gone away. (“He wittered on and on about it; I wanted to tell him to naff off …”)




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