Dodgy, manky, naff and yucky - the joys of the English language

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The Independent Online
I am very glad to welcome back our language expert Professor Wordsmith, who has agreed yet again to emerge from the saloon bar and answer your questions on the ever-fascinating English language.

All yours, Prof!

I am intrigued by the presence of a clothes shop in my local high street called Naf. Why would a shop want to call itself by such a name? We don't get shoe shops called Slipshod or hairdressing salons called Unkempt, so why a clothes shop called Naf?

Professor Wordsmith writes: My understanding is that the Naf shops have an overseas origin, and wherever they come from, they probably didn't know the unfortunate connotation of the word "naff" in English. They couldn't really change the name of the chain just to please the English, so they presumably decided to brazen it out.

It is interesting, incidentally, that the word "naff" is one of a select few slang words which are peculiar to England and unknown in America.

Are there many others?

Professor Wordsmith writes: I started making a list of them the other day, and I got as far as "dodgy, manky, naff, yucky, yonks, tacky, kinky, skive, stroppy, khazi, cazh and bolshy", when something happened.

What happened?

Professor Wordsmith writes: I ran out of examples.

Oh, right. What's "cazh", by the way?

Professor Wordsmith writes: It's the only way I can think of of writing the abbreviation for "casual". By the way, I was going to say that the misfortune of calling a clothes shop something like Naf is not confined to overseas people. We British too have made some strange errors in trade names.

Such as?

Professor Wordsmith writes: There was a kind of lorry called Foden - may still be, for all I know - which didn't sell well in Portugal.

Why not?

Professor Wordsmith writes: Because "Foden" is a very rude word in Portuguese. Again, in German the word "mist" means "dung" or "shit", and I gather that Rolls-Royce had trouble selling quantities of their Silver Mist car over there. How the makers of Irish Mist get on, I do not know, but not well, I should imagine.

Next question, please!

We are often told by the intellectuals that rhyme is old-fashioned. But it seems to be a powerful popular instinct to use rhyme, in expressions like "pub grub", "ragbag", "razzle-dazzle" and so on. Why haven't the intellectuals noticed this?

Professor Wordsmith writes: Oh, but they have. They do it themselves. Listen to a programme such as Melvyn Bragg's Start the Week, and as soon as they start rehearsing the heredity vs environment argument, someone is bound to say, "Oh, nature vs nurture". And it's a rare week that nobody says "descriptive, not prescriptive". What I am waiting for now is "Nature vs Nietzsche".

Mr Will Wyatt was quoted in this space yesterday as saying: "I hope we didn't overly suggest ...". Is this word "overly" a new one coined by the BBC, or is it legit?

Professor Wordsmith writes: Oh, no, it's a proper word all right, as long as it is used in front of an adjective, as in "his films were overly violent". Mr Wyatt's usage was incorrect, because he used it before a verb. The BBC is not what it was, I fear.

It certainly isn't. I noticed not so long ago that Sue Lawley on `Desert Island Discs' pronounced Gervase de Peyer's surname as "Pay-yay", whereas Radio 3 announcers always call him "de Pie-er". Is it possible to pronounce a name two different ways?

Professor Wordsmith writes: Yes. The right way and the wrong way. Miss Lawley was wrong. But I have noticed that Radio 3 gets things wrong as well. There is an American composer called Gottschalk who is often pronounced by them as "Gott's chalk". In fact, it should be pronounced "Gottshalk', as it comes from a German word Schalk, meaning "rogue". In the same sort of way, we always pronounce the name Rothschild wrong, as if it were "Roth's child". But the German origin is rot Schild, which means something like Red Shield. So we should really say "Rotshild ...".

Isn't this all incredibly pedantic?

Professor Wordsmith writes: Of course. Pedantry is my game. It is how I get my kicks, and also, I am glad to say, make my living. Incidentally, Dr Webster of Aberdeen, thank you for your letter, and my answer is that the word you are thinking of is not "out tray" but outre. Both are, of course, pronounced exactly the same in your part of the world.

Do you want to help Professor Wordsmith stay solvent? Then keep those queries rolling in!