Polari… a mini guide to the secret language of the gay community
A pocket rocket guide to Polari, the secret language that helped unite and protect the gay community.
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, 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 usually only evolve because unfair social systems result in groups of people having to communicate very, very… secretly. Basically, every secret language is all-too-often a sign that something’s gone wrong somewhere in the world. The good news is that…
SECRET LANGUAGES ARE BEAUTIFUL. AND PROTECT THOSE WHO SPEAK THEM.
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 been consistently marginalised in history and one of the results of that marginalisation is the secret and largely forgotten language of Polari. Polari is a form of historical slang used by the gay community 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. It’s pretty much died out by now, though some people still use it knowingly – not so much to hide their orientation, but to embrace it.
How did Polari come about?
We’re (hopefully) on the verge of living in a time where it’s beginning to be understood that withholding basic human rights from any one group of people is unethical and not to be tolerated. But we’re still not there yet. Nowhere near.
It’s easy to understand why, in the sixties, a merchant navy sailor and a Member of Parliament meeting in a public toilet (look, no-one likes toilets. 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 could lead to blackmail and jail and being beaten up in an alleyway and all levels of cruelty and crime, just because of daring to say what was on your mind. British police were 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 a relationship with a man in 1952, tried for gross indecency, forced to take female hormone injections against his will and ultimately took his own life in 1954.
A word in the wrong ear could turn your life upside-down, so secrecy and discretion for the gay community was vital. A private slang like Polari meant a gay man could greet someone he liked via a secret code. If the other man was gay he’d probably understand… and if he wasn’t, no harm done. The use of Polari helped to lessen the very real fear of honesty.
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 might go like this:
Gay Man #1: Bona to vada, love your lallies…
Het 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 so 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 discretion that Polari afforded those who could speak it, at least the conversation wouldn’t have to go quite like this:
Gay Man #1: Nice to see you, love your legs…
Het Man: Fire! Police! Pestilence! The end days are coming! Arrest this gentleman, he has a mind to invite me to dinner!
Polari wasn’t so much a full language as a vast collection of slang words. It seems to have been 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 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 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 – gay man
- Slap – makeup (e.g. to put your slap on)
- Lallies – legs