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Polari - English gay slang

Polari - English gay slang

The History of Polari

Polari (also seen as 'Palare') is a gay slang language, which has now

almost died out.

Gay slang in Britain dates back to the involvement of the homosexual

subculture with the criminal "underworld". The homosexual subculture of the

Eighteenth Century mixed with the gypsies, tramps & thieves of popular song

to produce a rich cross-fertilisation of customs, phrases and traditions.

As the Industrial revolution dramatically changed settlement patterns, more

and more people drifted away from villages and small communities and moved

to larger towns in search of work and opportunity. In these larger urban

locations, the scope for the development of communities of outcasts

substantially increased. The growth of molly houses (private spaces for men

to meet, drink, have sex together and practice communal rituals) encouraged

the creation of a molly identity. A linguistic culture developed, feeding

into that profession traditionally associated with poofs and whores:


When I started to research Polari, it was difficult to find any written

material about Polari as what little used to exist was out of print.

However, in the last few years, more and more people have been finding out

about it, and several web sites and magazine articles have been written.

Polari featured heavily in the "Julian and Sandy" sketches on the BBC radio

program "Round the Horne" in the late 60s, and this is how a lot of people

first heard of Polari. A few words like 'bona' can still be seen in gay

publications, used for camp effect. There are even hairdressers in London

and Brighton called "Bona Riah".

Polari itself was never clearly defined: an ever-changing collection of

slang from various sources including Italian, English (backwards slang,

rhyming slang), circus slang, canal-speak, Yiddish and Gypsy languages. It

is impossible to tell which slang words are real Polari.

Linguists still argue about where it came from. The larger part of its

vocabulary is certainly Italian in origin, but nobody seems to know how the

words got into Britain. Some experts say its origins lie in the lingua

franca of the shores of the Mediterranean, a pidgin in use in the Middle

Ages and afterwards as a medium of communication between sailors and

traders from widely different language groups, the core of this language

being Italian and Occitan. Quite a number of British sailors learnt the

lingua franca. On returning home and retiring from the sea it is supposed

that many of them became vagabonds or travellers, because they had no other

means of livelihood; this threw them into contact with roving groups of

entertainers and fairground people, who picked up some of the pidgin terms

and incorporated them into their own canting private vocabularies.

However, other linguists point to the substantial number of native Italians

who came to Britain as entertainers in the early part of the nineteenth

century, especially the Punch and Judy showmen, organ grinders and peddlars

of the 1840s. Much of parlarey, the travelling showmen's language, appears

to be derived from the lingua franca or the vocabulary of travelling actors

and showmen during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Specifically

theatrical parlyaree included phrases such as joggering omee (street

musician), slang a dolly to the edge (to show and work a marionette on a

small platform outside the performance booth in order to attract an

audience) and climb the slanging-tree (perform onstage). Nanty dinarly

(having no money) also had a peculiarly theatrical translation in the

phrase "There's no treasury today, the ghost doesn't walk."

The disappearance of large numbers of traveling costermongers and

cheapjacks by the early twentieth century effectively denied the language

its breathing space. As many of the travelling entertainers moved sideways

into traveling circus, so the language moved with them, kept alive as a

living and changing language within circus culture.

By the mid-twentieth century, there had also been a cross-over to a

recognisably gay form of slang, with polari used by the gay community to

communicate in code in elaborate forms. Words such as trade and ecaf

(backslang for face, shortened to eek) became part of gay subculture.

Blagging trade (picking up sexual partners), zhoosing your riah (doing your

hair), trolling to a bijou bar (stepping into a gay club) and dishing the

dirt (recounting gossip) all became popular coded phrases to describe and

encode an emerging homosexual lifestyle. By the 1950's, with secret

homosexual clubs emerging in swinging London and the Wolfenden Committee

discussing the possibility of law reform around (homo) sexuality, it seems

appropriate that polari should raise its irreverent head.

Polari became an appropriate tool with which to confuse and confound the

naff omees (straight men). It traveled the world via the sea queens, who

incorporated navy slang into a new version of the language and also

accommodated local dialects and phrases.

But Polari is a linguistic mongrel. Words from Romany (originally an

Indian dialect), Shelta (the cant of the Irish tinkers), Yiddish, back

slang, rhyming slang and other non-standard English are interspersed with

words of Italian origin.

So it would not be surprising to find that both the Italian showman

and the lingua franca theories are right, each contributing words at

different stages in Polari's development. This might indeed explain the

substantial number of synonyms noted at various times. However, the

vocabulary is not well recorded, and now may never be, because it was

normal until quite recently for linguists to ignore such low-life forms,

which rarely turned up in print (and then only in partial glossaries). But

we do know that a few of Polari's terms have made it across the language

barrier into semi-standard English, much of it seeming to come to us via

Cockney: karsey, a lavatory; mankey, poor, bad or tasteless; ponce, a pimp;

savvy to know, understand; and scarper to run away.

The rest have stayed within the theatrical and circus worlds, and

have also been incorporated particularly into the private languages of some

homosexual groups, as Julian and Sandy make very clear. Some writers have

sought to claim Polari exclusively for the gay community, renaming it

Gayspeak. In the 1990s it certainly seems to be heavily used by some city-

based British gays (but only male gays, not lesbians), who have invented

new terms like nante 'andbag for "no money" (handbag here being a self-

mocking example of metonymy). However, it can scarcely have always been so,

unless every fairground showman, circus performer, strolling player,

cheapjack and Punch and Judy man in history was gay, which seems somewhat