Polari: the language born from prejudice
Wednesday 17th May 2017
On International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, PETER FROST remembers a once secret gay dialect
HOMOSEXUALITY was illegal in Britain until 1967. No wonder many gay men chose to avoid making public their sexual orientation.
One way was to adopt a secret language with which to communicate with other gay men. It’s what linguistic scholars call an anti-language.
Over history many stigmatised subcultures have developed their own secret languages. Examples of this are the rhyming slang and backslang of Cockney London.
Gay men and some lesbians adopted their own anti-language. It was called Polari. Strong influences in the language were Parlyaree, the Italian-derived language used by travelling entertainers, fairground people, costermongers and beggars.
Polari drew on many other tongues including Italian; Spanish; Yiddish; Occitan — a language in its own right, spoken in southern France and now almost killed off by the French government language police — various Gypsy languages; backslang; Cockney rhyming slang as well as various slangs used by circus folk, canal boaters and sailors.
Other strong input came from Cant, the secret age-old language of thieves and outlaws and an ancient pidgin language of Mediterranean traders and seafarers played its part too.
Before we take a closer look at the Polari language, let’s look at one word that isn’t actually Polari at all.
How did the use of the word “gay” for homosexual become so ubiquitous?
Some claim it has its origins around the 12th century in England, derived from the Old French word “gai” meaning happy, joyful, carefree.
By the mid-17th century, the word had gained an additional meaning — addicted to pleasures and dissipations. Still its main meaning was happy.
By the 19th century, the word “gay” was being used for a female prostitute or a man who used prostitutes. The phrase “gay it” meant to have sex.
Even with these new meanings, the original definitions of happy still remained widespread.
Around the 1920s and 1930s, however, the word started to gain a new meaning.
“Gay man” no longer just meant a man who had sex with a lot of women, but now described men who had sex with other men.
By 1920 gay men were using the word to describe themselves and by the 1950s it was so widely used that it started to drive out the other uses of the word gay.
Now let’s get back to Polari. It flourished in the years between the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde and the 1967 Sexual Offences Act.
It was a kind of code which enabled one gay man to identify another, allowing them to express themselves publicly without fear of arrest or reprisal and providing a vocabulary for talking about gay sex and sexuality.
It was particularly well known in London and was often associated with chorus boys who danced and sang in West End theatres, and among male prostitutes who worked around Piccadilly and Soho.
Another Polari stronghold was among merchant navy sailors, particularly those working as stewards on liners and cruise ships. Gradually Polari spread to the wider gay community.
Polari was a necessity in a world where homosexuality was stigmatised by law, medicine and religion. It was a way to express yourself without making your sexual orientation too public. Dropping the odd Polari word into a conversation was one way of working out if another man might also be gay.
One indication of Polari’s value in a world where homosexuality was illegal was the number of names for the police. They included “Betty bracelets,” “charpering omi,” “sharpy” and “Hilda handcuffs.”
By the 1970s, the much healthier atmosphere of gay liberation politics encouraged many gay men and lesbians to come out and be proud of their sexuality.
Polari was popularised in the 1960s by the BBC radio comedy show Round the Horne. In sketches two gay actors, Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams, played Julian and Sandy, two camp out-of-work actors who used Polari.
BBC brass either missed the point or, more likely, looked the other way. Today Polari is experiencing a minirevival due to recent stage shows of Round the Horne.
You can find entire films on the internet with Polari dialogue. There is a Polari app for mobile phones that gives instant translation.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have even published a Polari translation of the Bible on the internet.
Here are a few examples of Polari with translations. Try them for yourself.
Bona to varda your dolly old eek! (How good to see your dear old face!)
Vada the dolly dish, shame about his bijou lallies. (Look at the attractive man, shame about his short legs.)
Can I troll round your lally? (Can I have a look around your house?)
Here is one from the folk who produce the Oxford English Dictionary: Nellyarda, zhoosh the riah, titivate, schlumph your Vera down, and palare that omee for the bevvies because I’ve nanti dinarli.
Here is a translation if you need it: Listen, style your hair, make yourself look pretty, drink up your gin, and talk to that man to get a drink because I’m skint.
A few Polari words have entered mainstream English but I’m not sure how people would react if they knew the origins. “Camp” meaning effeminate comes from the abbreviation Kamp: Known As Male Prostitute.
Even better is the popular “naff,” meaning rubbish. Gay men first used it to judge and then reject a potential partner. It is well-known as Princess Anne’s favourite judgement.
I wonder if she realises it is an abbreviation for “not available for fucking.” Sorry, Your Royal Highness.
Here is a short glossary of Polari words so that you can start to speak it yourself:
– Bona: good.
– Cake the eke in slap: apply makeup.
– Carsey or khazi: toilet.
– Dolly: pretty, nice, pleasant.
– Drag: women’s clothes.
– Fantabulosa: wonderful.
– Jarry: food.
– Joggering omee: an entertainer.
– Kaffies: trousers.
– Lallies: legs.
– Lattie: room, house or flat.
– Lattie on wheels: a taxi.
– Mary-Ann: a gay Catholic man.
– Naff: bad, drab.
– Oglefakes: glasses.
– Omi-polone: homosexual.
– Polone: woman.
– Palone-omee: a lesbian.
– Riah shusher: hairdresser.
– Zhoosh the riah: style your hair.
– Strillers omee: a pianist.
– Shietel: a wig.
– Schlumph your Vera down: drink up your gin.
– Vada/varda: see.
If you practise a bit I am sure you will turn your spoken Polari from naff to fantabulosa.