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 collection of words, derived from a variety of sources but most strongly linked to an older form of slang called Parlyaree that was used by travelling entertainers, beggars and market stall holders. It contains bits of other languages and slangs including rhyming slang, back slang (saying a word as if it’s spelt backwards), Italian, French, Lingua Franca, American air force slang, drug-user slang and Cant (an even older form of slang used by criminals).
It was a secret, informal form of communication, used by relatively powerless groups of people who were often on ‘the wrong side of the law’, so it was not written down or recorded. Nobody owned it and there were few standards so as a result there is little agreement on spellings, pronunciations or even meanings of many of the words. Some speakers developed new words in their own social groups or ad libbed it to make it even more difficult to understand. For those who were very good at it, it resembled a proper language, 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. Heterosexual people who were connected to the theatre also used it, and there are numerous cases of gay men teaching it to their straight friends. It is still used, albeit in a more limited way in theatrical circles or among older gay men.
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). It has also been used less extensively in the past by Julian Clary, Larry Grayson, Peter Wyngarde, and even in a Jon Pertwee episode of Dr Who (Carnival of Monsters).
How many words are there?
I have collected around 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 the people I interviewed, and then there was a much large fringe lexicon, of which most people would only know a small sample.
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. A few words are below.
ajax – next to
BMQ (black market queen) – closeted gay man, especially in the merchant navy.
bona – good
cod – awful
dish – anus/bum
dolly – pretty
drag – clothing
eek – face
Eine – London
feely – young
lally – leg
lattie – house
lily (law) – the police
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
TBH – to be had
The Dilly – Piccadilly Circus, a popular hang-out for male prostitutes in London
trade – a sex partner
vada – to look
Where and when was it used?
Most commonly, in the 1920s-1960s, in places where gay men congregated or worked, especially in pubs, private bars, cottages, parks, cinemas, tea-shops and cafes. Because it was a secret language, it could also often be used in public spaces like the London Underground. It was especially associated with London, used by dancers, chorus boys in the theatres of the West End, the Dilly Boys who worked their trade around Piccadilly Circus and the docks and music halls of the East End. Large numbers of gay men worked on British Merchant Navy ships (particularly passenger ships owned by P&O) so it was extensively used and developed there too. However, it was not limited to London – it has been heard in many other British cities which have sizeable gay populations.
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?
By the late 1960s it was already starting to wane in popularity, and the Julian and Sandy sketches gave it mainstream popularity which spoilt the secret. Then, in the 1970s, some gay liberationists viewed camp as problematic and stereotyping and by this point it was starting to be seen as old-fashioned and politically incorrect. After this point, British gay culture was increasingly led by American trends so Polari was gradually discarded. By 2000, I carried out a survey of 800+ gay men. Half had never heard of it and of those who had, a good number believed it was old fashioned and encouraged men to be camp so should never be brought back. Around the same time, Boyz magazine denounced it as “evil”. In the 20 years since then, attitudes have softened somewhat.
Who does use it now?
Since the 1980s it has cropped up occasionally as a way of giving authenticity to stories about gay life in the 1950s and 1960s e.g. in films (e.g. Love is the Devil and Velvet Goldmine), music (Piccadilly Palare by Morrissey) and books (Sucking Sherbet Lemons by Michael Carson and Man’s World by Rupert Smith). In the 1990s the British Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence incorporated Polari into some of their sermons and blessings, using a form that has heavily influenced by Cant. They famously canonised Derek Jarman. Artists and film-makers have also used it in some interesting ways.Some gay businesses have branded themselves using Polari words (particularly the core words like bona and vada). There has been an online gay magazine called Polari, as well as a coffee-shop called the Polari Lounge. Some older gay men, especially those associated with the theatre or drag acts, still use it, although in more reduced circumstances.