“So bona to vada, with your lovely eek and your lovely riah”
(so good to look at, with your lovely face and your lovely hair)
Picadilly Palare, Morrissey, 1990
Have you ever invited your friends to go for a bevvie? Have you ever zhoosed anything up? Ever commented on how naff something was? Well, if you have, then you have used Polari; an underground slang language from the 18th-century underworld which saw its peak use in 1950s/60s British gay subculture.
But, what even is Polari?
I’m sure no one needs reminding that being gay during the majority of the 20th-century was no easy feat and could have resulted in you easily serving long stints in prison due to your sexuality (being gay was decriminalised in UK in 1967, however, the stigma of being gay lived on for decades). Yet, how is it that gay men continued to build community, talk and gossip amongst themselves?
Born from an amalgamation of backslang, rhyming slang, French, Italian, Occitan, Yiddish, cant (slang used by criminals) and parlyaree (slang used by sailors and travelers), Polari was a secret gay language system used primarily amongst homosexual men in the 1950s/60s. The language (though more accurately should be described as a lexicon, language variety, or slang system) allowed gay men to openly converse with other gay men about even the most intimate details of their lives without fear of persecution or prosecution.
Linguist Paul Baker explains that Polari was interwoven into ‘normal’ conversations and outlines that, above all else, it was used with the intention of gossiping about everybody else. He states “there were words about sex, but there were also a lot of evaluative words for it. You could talk about someone’s legs or their hair, and evaluate that too. So, it was more a social bonding language.”
How did it come about?
With Polari being a hodgepodge of so many languages and subcultures, many linguists often argue over its beginnings and are still trying to pinpoint an exact period in which the language system was born. Some believe that it emerged as early as the 18th century in molly-houses (underground establishments where gay men would secretly meet) but resurfaced in the 1920s and saw its peak popularity in the ´40s, ´50s and ´60s.
The difficulty in researching and fully understanding the parameters of Polari comes down to the fact that it was a primarily spoken slang and was never officially written down. This led to all kinds of misspellings, inconsistencies and variations in terminology depending on where you got your information. Even the spelling of the word Polari itself could be written as palare, palari, parlary, or palarie. To complicate matters even more, in London, Polari was divided into two subsystems. There was the East End Polari, which saw influences from Cockney rhyming slang and was used by gay men living closer to the shore and by dockworkers. There was also the West End variation, which saw influences and references used by the theatre world and was used more by office workers and theatregoers.
To see Polari in action:
Radio and the rise of Polari
Only in the ‘60s did Polari become widely known in the UK with the hit popular BBC radio comedy program Round The Horne. Broadcasted every Sunday and generally considered to be a family show, Round The Horne brought in a staggering 9 million listeners every week. Every episode saw its host Kenneth Horne run into the same two camp gay men, Sandy and Julian, who were exploring the new business venture of the day. The two beloved characters would generously throw Polari into their dialogue and were quite evidently out-of-the-closet gay men, which was unusual to see in such mainstream media given the illegality of being gay at the time; something the show would often make fun of.
Although the Polari words used would not have been widely known by audiences, due to the comedians well-timed and well-placed jokes, the meaning of Polari was inferred and the language became widely accessible to mass audiences. Generally speaking, as a result of the show’s influence, no longer was there the question “What is Polari?”
Polari falls but its legacy lives on.
With the decriminalization of homosexuality in the late ‘60s and with there no longer being the need for a secret gay language system, Polari saw a rapid decline in its daily use during the ‘70s and, eventually, fell out of use. However, Round The Horne, after many years of successful broadcasting, had managed to have such an impact on peoples’ lives that many Polari words found their way common UK terminology.
From the list below, how many Polari words do you know/ use?:
- ajax – next to
- batt – shoe
- bevvy – drink
- bijou – small
- bimbo – dupe, sucker
- bitch – catty gay man or to complain
- bona – good
- bungery – pub
- cackle – talk, gossip
- camp – effeminate, outrageous etc
- carsey – house, loo, brothel
- charper – to search
- charpering omi – policeman
- cod – awful
- cottage – public toilet, used for sex
- cottaging – seeking sex in a public toilet
- cove – friend
- dish – bum/anus
- dolly – pleasant
- drag – clothing (usually the sort you’re not expected to wear)
- eek – face, from backslang, ecaf
- feely – child, young person
- lallies – legs
- lattie – house
- lills – hands
- lucoddy – body
- luppers – fingers
- meshigener – crazy
- nachy (or nochy) – night
- naff (or naphe) – awful, tasteless, straight
- nanti – none, no, nothing, don’t, beware
- ogles – eyes (hence ogleriah – eyelash)
- omi – man
- omi-palone – gay man
- palone – woman
- Polari – to talk, or the gay language itself
- riah – hair
- send up – to make fun of
- TBH – to be had
- tober – road
- trade – a gay sex partner, often one who doesn’t consider himself to be gay
- troll – walk, wander
- vada – to look
- willets (jubes) – breasts
- zhoosh – fix, tidy
Life after Polari
So, where does that leave us with the status and use of Polari today? While few actively still use Polari, the lexicon is now being considered as an integral part of LGBTQ+ history and many individuals are taking steps to create projects that pay homage to the role it played in LGBTQ+ stories with the purpose of keeping both the language system and history alive. Though perhaps seemingly paradoxical in nature, the treatment of Polari by the LGBTQ+ community may be comparable to that of Latin by Catholics in that both collectives seek to maintain the languages’ existence despite their lack of use in present-day society.
Language changes and adapts to the culture and society in which it finds itself. Generally speaking, LGBTQ+ community now has a new vernacular comprising of modern-day pop culture references and linguistic importations mainly from America. However, the maintenance and education of Polari as an integral part of LGBTQ+ heritage remains vital in teaching newer generations about the hardships their predecessors went through and about the secret ways in which they were able to make their lives just a little bit easier to live.
<a href=’https://www.freepik.com/photos/love’>Love photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com</a>
About Christian Copeland
Graduate Degree in Modern Languages and Translation (French/Spanish) from Cardiff University, UK. Studied in UNIGE, Geneva, Switzerland and Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, Spain. English teacher, translator and proofreader in the French and Spanish to English combinations.