Polari – the Secret Language
If you have ever said you are going down the pub for a few bevvies, zhooshed up your bijou flat, or commented that something is a bit naff then you have used Polari, a slang language that has its roots in the eighteenth century underworld but reached its heyday in the British gay subculture of the 1950s and 60s.
Mainly using the grammar and syntax of English, it is an eclectic mixture of slangs, dialects and foreign-language words, along with some original words and phrases. At a time when it was illegal to be gay in Britain and homosexuals were persecuted not just by the law but by society at large, Polari was a secret vocabulary that allowed gay people to speak openly to each other and identify themselves as gay without attracting public censure or the attentions of undercover charpering omis (policemen).
The Origins of Polari
There is still a great deal of disagreement amongst linguists as to the precise origins of Polari which may also be written as Palare, Parleyary, Palyaree, or Palary. It is primarily spoken, so where it is seen written down there are often inconsistencies in the spellings of the words. To be strictly accurate it should not really be described as a language at all, rather it is a lexicon, a sociolect or language variety.
Many of the words come from Italian and Occitan but it is not clear how they reached Britain. One popular theory is that it began in the Lingua Francaused around the Mediterranean ports after the middle ages. This was a mixture of Italian, French, Spanish, Greek, and Arabic that allowed the sailors and traders from different parts of the world to communicate. British sailors would have picked this up while working in the region and brought it back to Britain when they retired from nautical life. This was well before state pensions existed and without any other means of securing a livelihood these sailors may have become vagabonds or travellers and fallen in with other roving groups of entertainers and fairground people, who incorporated some of the terms into their own private languages. Alternative theories point to the large numbers of Italian entertainers who travelled to Britain in the early nineteenth century, bringing the language with them.
Given the heterogeneous nature of the Polari vocabulary, with words taken from Romany, Shelta (the language of the Irish travellers), Yiddish, backslang (saying a word as if it is written backwards, for example riah for hair), American Armed Forces slang and rhyming slang, it would not be surprising to find that both the Lingua Franca and the Italian entertainer theories are correct, and both contributed to its development. It was a constantly growing and evolving language with a number of core words (see below) that was widely used within the entertainment world, traveller community, and in various underground groups. Many gay men worked in theatre and eventually the slang began to be used in the gay subculture from the 1930s up to a peak in the 1950s and early 1960s.
It is interesting to note that even within the relatively small Polari-speaking gay community in London there were different ‘dialects’. The ‘West End Queens’ spoke a version of the language which contained a lot of theatre-speak and they regarded both themselves and their slang as much more upmarket than the East End version which was heavily influenced by canal language and criminal slang. Whichever version you spoke, however, you could be sure that you wouldn’t be understood by the uninitiated.
Hello, I’m Julian and This is My Friend Sandy
Until 1965 most people would not have heard Polari spoken, or if they had they would probably not have recognised and understood it. However, all that was set to change thanks to a new BBC Radio programme that was broadcast that year. Round The Horne was a comedy show hosted by Kenneth Horne. It featured Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick and Betty Marsden, with scripts by Marty Feldman and Barry Took and was broadcast on Sunday afternoons between 1965 and 1969. It was a mixture of sketches, wordplay, and comedy with a number of regulars such as the screamingly-camp Sandy, played by Kenneth Williams, and Hugh Paddick’s Julian.
The two would launch into streams of innuendo and double entendres, done in such an outrageously camp and exaggerated manner that it avoided any suggestion of homophobia. First-time listeners would not have immediately understood the strange Polari terms they used, but over time and through repetition and context it was possible to build up a vocabulary of the secret language. An oft-repeated phrase was ‘How bona1 to vada2 your dolly3 old eek4!’, which may be roughly translated as ‘Nice to see you!’. The language used by Julian and Sandy often made diminutives form of the nouns, for example one might offer a ‘bijou drinkette’ (small drink). It also included wordplay that took Italian forms, such as fantabulosa, meaning excellent or wonderful.
Other people that have used Polari publicly include Larry Grayson, Peter Wyngarde and Julian Clary. In a 1972 episode of Doctor Who called ‘Carnival of Monsters’, one of the characters speaks to the Doctor in a language that sounds like Polari, although it is more likely to have been Parlare, the secret language of carny people from which Polari heavily borrowed. This incarnation of the Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee, fails to understand it.
More recently, in 1990 Morrissey released an album called Bona Drag and had a hit with Picadilly Palare which included the lyric:
So bona to vada, with your lovely eek and your lovely riah.
The End of Polari?
After the 1960s use of Polari declined. This may be partly attributed to the popular success of Round the Horne – a secret language isn’t much good if everyone understands it! On 27 June, 1967 the Sexual Offences Act was revised which meant that homosexuality was decriminalised, society began to be more relaxed about it and public acceptance and tolerance grew. By the early 1970s speaking Polari in the clubs and bars where it had previously flourished was seen as old-fashioned, unattractive, stereotyped and not politically correct and as a result it became obsolete and all but died out. Recently, however, there have been some efforts to preserve it and most gay people know at least a few words, often without realising it. There has even been a Polari translation of the Bible!
Even in the 1990s new terms were being coined, such as ‘nante handbag’ for no money. Many words that are part of the Polari vocabulary have also slipped into mainstream English usage; for example, camp (as in effeminate), drag (as in clothes), queen (as in gay male), dishy, mincing (as in walking affectedly), bijou (as in small), scarper, naff, bevvy and butch are all words that 40 years ago would only have been used by Polari speakers.
Little of the lexicon was recorded as it developed so it is possible that some of the vocabulary has been lost over time. Academics studying it now estimate that there may have been as many as 500 words used, although most people wouldn’t have known all of them. There was a core of around 20 words, describing people, everyday objects, body parts and clothing. Here are some examples of frequently used terms.
- 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 (a backronym was formed from this to describe straight men as Not Available For F***ing)
- 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
The best way to hear Polari as it was spoken is to listen to the BBC archive recordings of Julian and Sandy on ‘Round the Horne’.
Well, it’s been bonaroo cackling with you, my old coves, but my luppers are knackered now so I’m going to zhoosh my riah, don my bona drag and troll up the tober to the ajax bungery for a few bevvies. Bona nochy!