Additions and Corrections: Romany, Dutch and more

The hardback version of Fabulosa states that Romany was a form of language used by Gypsies who originally came from Romania (page 41). Actually, Romany-speaking gypsies came from India migrating via the Byzantine Empire to the Balkans, before radiating out to the rest of Europe in three distinct waves (this has been corrected for the paperback version). One of the candidates for a Polari word via Romany, parnee (water), is the same in Hindu/Urdu. Other possible Polari words that may have found their way into Romany are minge, lav and lall.

I was contacted by a Polari speaker who was familiar with the way it was spoken by rent boys around Piccadilly Circus in the late 1960s, many of whom were from the Newcastle area and didn’t identify as gay and were not camp. Many of these speakers used Polari as a “trade” language (to discuss clients and prices), while market traders in London also used Polari, although after its association with camp gay men through the Round the Horne sketches, rent boys and market traders wanted to distance themselves from it, so they stopped using it.

This speaker noted words like kik (to look), lop (to run), lopen (running), ken (to know) which he thinks came to Polari from Dutch via Geordie. While such terms were used by rent boys they were not words used by gay-identified speakers for camp purposes. Other words used by these men included minger/bogey (police). A bogey was an undercover policeman. The Polari spoken in Newcastle was apparently different from the version spoken in London with a numbering system based on Dutch. The term Meat Rack (in capitals) referred specifically to the railings around Piccadilly Circus, although the term rack was extended to other places – so the Marquis of Salisbury was a ‘bona rack’, whilst another pub, the Quebec, close to Marble Arch, had a reputation for being a ‘cod rack’. A male brothel was known as a “bona house”, although this was a term used in a form of Polari spoken in the Black Country.

The same speaker gives some useful insights into the origin of the term polari pipe (telephone.) He traces it to the use of hose-pipes in cash booths in sideshows at fairs. There would be a hose-pipe with a funnel at each end which was run from the cash booth to the backstage area of the sideshow. The pipe was used as a speaking tube to communicate when there was a crowd at the ticket office, for example. When such pipes were replaced with field army telephones, they were still called polari pipes.

Another reader contacted me about a phrase used a few times in the Julian and Sandy sketches: “order lau your luppers on the strillers bona”, which I’d heard Kenneth Williams (Sandy) translate as “come and play something nice on the piano” in a radio interview. The reader offers a different interpretation, where a “strillers bona” is a grand piano, as opposed to the “cottage upright” (which had its bottom octave removed). A pianist would be known as a “strillers queen”. This reader also notes how -oise or -oir (pronounced -wahz and -wa) could be added to words, as marker of snobbishness. For example, “tres chic” could be pronounced “trez sheesh” with an alternate variation being “trez sheeshwahz”.

An interesting point was raised by one reader who noted how in the 1980s, he heard Polari being used by older gay men to talk about younger gay men while they were present, as the younger ones wouldn’t understand it. Abbreviations like NAFF and TBH were common, as well as DLE (Distance Lends Enhancement) – to describe someone who wasn’t very good-looking close-up.

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