Polari… A Secret Language of Gay Slang
A pocket rocket guide to Polari, the gay slang of the sixties that helped unite a subculture…
Oh, secret languages, I’d like to kiss your hand. All of your hands. Just however many hands you’ve got, quite frankly. You forever thrill my heart because of your redolent hint of taboo and, well, secrecy. So shall I pass on the bad news first or the good news?
Oh, the bad news? As you wish, dear mook…
The bad news is that secret languages only evolve because unfair social systems result in groups of people having to communicate very, very… secretly. Basically, every secret language is a sign that something’s gone wrong somewhere in the world. The good news is that…
SECRET LANGUAGES FOR THE ETERNAL WIN!
Perhaps you’ve already seen our love letter to floriography, the Victorian flower-language invented to communicate your feelings without having to say anything impolite. Like, just for example, “please go away, I actually a little bit hate you”. Which is a lovely idea, really. If you must tell someone you hate them, it’s so rewarding to say it with flowers.
LGBT culture has for the most part been marginalised in history and that’s forced it to be creative in communication, resulting in the secret language of Polari. Polari is a form of slang used by gay subculture as well as theatre people and circus folk, and it attracted media notice in the swinging sixties but seems to have been around since the 19th century and possibly earlier. Unfortunately it’s pretty much died out by now, though some people still use it knowingly – not to hide their identity, but to embrace it.
How did Polari come about?
We’re finally living in a time where it’s beginning to be understood that withholding basic human rights from any one group of people is hideously unethical. But we’re still not anywhere near full equality yet, and back in the day it was considerably worse…
It’s easy to understand why, in the sixties, a merchant navy sailor and a Member of Parliament meeting in a public toilet to have a little kiss (look, no-one likes toilets, okay? It was a social necessity) would want to be a bit careful with first impressions. Just in case it turned out they weren’t both gay. Because that would be awkward. And, more importantly, could lead to blackmail and jail and being beaten up in an alleyway and all manner of bad, just because of daring to admit what was on your mind. British police were really keen to prosecute the ‘crime’ of homosexuality in the mid 20th century – just look at poor Alan Turing, the wonderful cryptanalyst who cracked the Enigma code but was caught having an affair with a man in 1952, tried for gross indecency, forced to take female hormone injections and ultimately took his own life in 1954.
A wrong word could turn your life upside-down, so secrecy and discretion for the gay community was vital. It was not a relaxed time.
A private slang like Polari meant a gay man could greet another man he liked via a secret code. If the other man was gay he’d probably understand… and if he wasn’t, no harm done. No jail time required.
At best, a conversation between two strangers on a Soho street might go like this:
Gay Man #1: Bona to vada, love your lallies…
Gay Man #2: Oh, you fantabulosa dish! It’s so bona to meet another omi-polone.
At worst, it would go like this:
Gay Man #1: Bona to vada, love your lallies…
Very-Not-Gay Man: You’re either drunk or Italian, for I can’t understand you. Oh, you love the ladies? Well now, why didn’t you say earlier, sir? Let us peruse some skimpily dressed ladies this very eve.
Gay Man #1: [Backs off hurriedly] Perdon, mi no Inglese, mi Italiano… ciao, ciao…
Thanks to the discrete gay slang of Polari, at least the conversation wouldn’t have to go quite like this:
Gay Man #1: Nice to see you, love your legs…
Very-Not-Gay Man: Fire! Police! Pestilence! The end days are coming! Arrest this monstrosity, he has conspired to hold my hand and touch my bottom!
Polari wasn’t so much a full language as a vast collection of slang words based on backwards slang, rhyming slang, a little bit of Italian, Roma and Yiddish terminology, a bit of the slang of the canal-men and navvies, and a whole lot of theatre-speak, as Polari was very prevalent in Soho and around the theatres of the West End.
Looking through some of the words collated by Chris in this list below, it’s amazing to see how much Polari gay slang has entered our everyday language. Why, it’s almost as if we’re all talking in a secret code right now…
A Pocket-Rocket Guide to Polari Gay Slang
- Ajax – nearby
- Basket – a man’s bits, fully clothed
- Bijou – small
- Bold – daring
- Bona – good
- Bona to vada – good to see you
- Butch – masculine, or a masculine LGBT
- Camp – effeminate
- Carsey – toilet
- Cottage – public toilet
- Crimper – hairdresser
- Dish – a handsome man
- Dizzy – scatterbrained
- Dolly – nice, pretty, pleasant
- Drag – all clothing but especially women’s clothes
- Eek – face
- Fantabulosa – wonderful
- Mince – to walk in a mannered style
- oglefakes – glasses (OMG love this)
- Omi-polone – effemenate or gay man
- Slap – makeup (e.g. to put your slap on)
- Lallies – legs