Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men

What is Polari?

Polari is a more recent spelling. In the past, it was also known as Palari, Palare, Parlaree or a variety of similar spellings. It is mainly a lexicon, derived from a variety of sources. Some of the most common include rhyming slang, backslang (saying a word as if it's spelt backwards), Italian, Occitan, French, Lingua Franca, American airforce slang, drug-user slang, Parlyaree (an older form of slang used by tinkers, beggars and travelling players) and Cant (an even older form of slang used by criminals). Polari can be classed as a language variety, a sociolect, or an anti-language.

While it was mainly used as a lexicon, some of the more adept speakers were so good at it, that it resembled a language, with its own grammatical rules, distinct to English. In 2010, Cambridge University labelled Polari as an "endangered language".

Who used it?

Mainly gay men, although also lesbians, female impersonators, theatre people, prostitutes and sea-queens (gay men in the merchant navy). It was not limited to gay men, however. Straight people who were connected to the theatre also used it, and there are numerous cases of gay men teaching it to their straight friends.

The most famous users of Polari were Julian and Sandy (played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams) in the 1960s BBC radio comedy show, Round The Horne (written by Barry Took and Marty Feldman). However, it has also been used in the past by Julian Clary, Larry Grayson, Peter Wyngarde, and in a Jon Pertwee episode of Dr Who (Carnival of Monsters).

How many words are there?

I have collected almost 500 Polari terms, although it's unlikely that most people would have known or even used that many. During my research I found that people's individual knowledge of Polari was very different - about 20 core words were known to almost all speakers, and then there was a much large fringe lexicon, of which most people would only know a small sample. Therefore, there were lots of different versions in existence - different pronunciations, spellings and meanings of the same word.

What words were in it?

There are lots of words for types of people, occupations, body parts, clothing and everyday objects. There were also a lot of evaluative adjectives in it. It was ideal for gossip. Verbs concerned sexual acts, cruising or looking at people. Some (but not all) of the core lexicon words are:

ajax - next to
bevvy - drink
bitch - catty gay man or to complain
blow(job) - to give oral sex
bona - good
camp - effeminate, outrageous etc
cod - awful
cottage - public toilet used for sex
dish - anus/bum
dolly - pretty
drag - clothing (usually the sort you're not expected to wear)
eek - face
feely - young
lally - leg
lattie - house
naff - awful, tasteless
nanti - none, no, nothing, don't, beware
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
The Dilly - Piccadilly Circus, a popular hang-out for male prositutes in London
trade - a gay sex partner, often one who doesn't consider himself to be gay
vada - to look

Where and when was it used?

Most commonly, in the 1930s-1970s, in private gay drinking establishments, particularly in London. It was also widely used in the theatre (dancers, chorus boys and female impersonators) and on British Merchant Navy ships (particularly passenger ships owned by P&O). However it was not limited to London - it has been heard in many other UK cities. Because it was a secret language, it could also often be used in public spaces - such as on the London underground.

Why did people use it?

There are numerous reasons: as a form of protection and secrecy - it excluded outsiders who wouldn't be able to tell what you were talking about, and allowed gay people to conceal their sexuality. It could be used to talk about other people while they were present, and was particularly useful when cruising with friends. However, it could also be used as a form of attack, to insult or humiliate others. It was a form of humour and camp performance, and also a way of initiating people into the gay or theatre subculture. It allowed its users to construct a view of reality based upon their own values, or to give names to things that mainstream culture hadn't recognised (such as certain forms of gay sex).

Why don't gay people use it now?

In a way, the popularity of the Julian and Sandy sketches meant that the secret was spoilt. Also, the (partial) decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 meant that there was less need for a secret form of language. Then in the early 1970s, gay liberationists wanted to move away from camp stereotypes of gay men, and Polari was increasingly viewed as unattractive and old fashioned. Also, it was a British phenomenon (although a few Americans have claimed to use it). Therefore, with increased globalisation and influences on the British gay scene from America in the 1970s and 1980s, Polari was not something which was set to continue. Current attitudes towards it are still fragmented and ambivalent within the gay scene, with some people claiming it to be silly, feminising and outdated, others wanting a revival and others thinking it's an important part of gay heritage but shouldn't necessarily be brought back.

Who does use it now?

It still crops up occasionally, in films (e.g. Love is the Devil and Velvet Goldmine), music (Piccadilly Palare by Morrissey) and books (Sucking Sherbert Lemons by Michael Carson). Some gay businesses have named themselves after it (particuarly the core words like bona and vada). There's an online gay magazine called Polari, as well as a coffee-shop called the Polari Lounge (see links below). In the 1990s the British Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence also incorporated it into some of their sermons and blessings, using a form that has heavily influenced by Cant. They famously canonised Derek Jarman. In private, groups of gay men - particularly older or middle-aged men continue to use it, and in the late 1990s I had emails from people who said that they used in certain gay clubs in London, having merged with other forms of slang (e.g. Techno, Bangra) to be called Klub Polari or Klubari. Rather than a revival of people speaking the language though, I'd characterise this as a revival of interest in Polari.

I am a student or someone who works in the media. Can you provide me with people who still speak or spoke Polari for my own project?

Unfortunately not. I did the research in the mid-1990s, and the people I interviewed at the time have either passed away or fallen out of contact.

Polari - The Lost Language of Gay Men, by Paul Baker, published by Routledge in 2002. Hardback, 215 pages. ISBN 0-415-26180-5

Chapter 1 What is Polari?
Chapter 2 Historical Origins
Chapter 3 Polari as a Language System
Chapter 4 Uses and Abuses
Chapter 5 Julian and Sandy
Chapter 6 Decline
Chapter 7 Revival
Chapter 8 Conclusion
Appendix: Polari dictionary


Polari is also discussed in the following book chapters

Baker, J. P. and Stanley, J. (2002) "Speaking Gay Secrets" in Hello Sailor! Gay Life for Seafaring Men 1945-1990. London: Pearson.

Cox, L. J. & Fay, R. J. (1994) "Gayspeak, the Linguistic Fringe: Bona Polari, Camp, Queerspeak and Beyond" In The Margins of the City: Gay Men's Urban Lives, ed. by Stephen Whittle, Ashgate Publishing, pp.103-127.

Hancock, Ian (1984) "Shelta and Polari", in Peter Trudgill [ed], Language in the British Isles, Cambridge UP, pp. 384-403.

Lucas, I. (1997). “The Color of His Eyes: Polari and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.” In Livia, A. & Hall, K. (eds), Queerly Phrased. Oxford: Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics, pp 85-94.

Partridge, E. (1950). "Polari: A Cinderella Among Languages", in Here, There, and Everywhere: Essays Upon Language. London: Hamish Hamilton.


Links

  • Chris Denning's home page Lots of links and other references.

  • A bibliography of academic studies on Gay and Lesbian Language maintained by Greg Ward

  • Observer Article on gay language - 10/12/00

  • The Bible - Polari edition

  • Polari magazine An online gay magazine edited by Chris Bryant

  • The Polari Lounge at Stoke-on-Trent A Polari-themed coffee-shop.
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