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I've come across the phrase, used in the sentence below, while I was reading a novel written by Raymond Chandler.

"I'm Miss Vermilea, Mr. Umney's secretary," She said in a rather chintzy voice.

I looked up the word "chintzy", and still can't understand what it tries to describe.

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I don't think the American sense of cheap or tacky is meant here. Chandler was educated at Dulwich College and didn't return to America until he was in his twenties. So there were strains of British culture in his background, and I think his use of the word chintzy is more in line with that. People who favoured chintz, with its bright floral patterns, were people who might be working class in origin, but were also people with social aspirations. Their front rooms were likely to be over-decorated, stuffed with knick-knacks, and with aspidistras in the window (like the Comstock's home in Keep the Aspidistra Flying). George Orwell's word for that class of people was "shabby-genteel". What I think Chandler was trying to portray was someone from that kind of background, rather prim and proper, someone who puts on airs and graces and is desperate to be seen as "respectable". I haven't read the book (or, if I have, I don't recognize the quotation), so I could be wrong. But that's the way I read it.

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From what I've read of Chandler, this is a extremely likely. The character would be putting on a false front of class. She wants to seem as important as her employer, but it's all affected and for show. The "chintz" is cheaply applied luxury. A flashy fabric on the outside of a poorly made cushion. – David M Mar 22 '14 at 13:39

The meaning of chintzy here is probably stingy.

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How would you have a stingy voice, though? I agree that stingy is definitely a sense of chintzy, but it seems odd to me. – David M Mar 22 '14 at 21:28

Given the literary meaning of "chintzy" , I think it has been used in a figurative sense meaning "humble", keeping a very low profile.

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See Terpsichore's answer. Chintzy doesn't mean humble. It's quite the opposite. It's aspirations to luxury (but that can be seen through by people who know quality). – David M Mar 22 '14 at 13:42

The word 'chintz' refers to a multicoloured cotton fabric, with a glazed finish. The word is Hindi in origin and dates from the early 17th century. The Hindi word 'chint' means a 'spattering' or 'stain'.

When it comes to 'chintzy', British and American English diverge. In Britain it is still connected to fabric. 'A pretty chintzy pattern'.

In North America it connotes cheapness and poor quality.

As Raymond Chandler is an American one must suppose that he equates 'chintzy' with cheapness, and 'she spoke with a cheap voice'- presumably less than eloquent, with a working-class idiomatic way of speaking. It does sound highly patronising, however.

In Britain I might describe someone as having a working-class accent, since there clearly is such a thing. But disparaging such a way of speaking is, if I might say so, 'a bit chintzy'.

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+1 because of the usual connotation in AmE. But, I think Terpsichore has it right. It's chintzy in the sense of false luxury. The secretary is putting on airs. – David M Mar 22 '14 at 13:40
@DavidM Is that how 'chintzy' would be understood in America? Oxford Dictionaries says 'cheap and of poor quality', but of course that is a potentially movable description. In Britain where the way you speak tends to define you, if anyone puts on a false air they are said to be 'cracking their jaw'. I have just realised that last is a bit dated, so may not be recognised by many. – WS2 Mar 22 '14 at 14:07
It's a dated reference. But, that is the original context. It's just dropped the false elegance bit and become a synonym for cheap. – David M Mar 22 '14 at 14:28

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