Polari: The Lost Language of Rainbows
August 3, 2012
Sometimes, in the rush to integrate into society as a whole, we forget parts of our heritage that made us unique and special. Polari is the largely forgotten, hidden gay language that enabled men to communicate in the secure knowledge that only they would understand. From the 18th Century until the growth of gay liberation in the 1970's, it defined our difference from the rest of society.
"How Bona to vada your dolly old eek! Don't be strange, troll in!"
I wonder how many people understand the quote above. If you're somewhat older and have connections to Britain, you may remember some words but otherwise, I suspect younger generations will probably see this as Outer Mongolian. Still baffled? Okay, I'll translate:
'How nice to see your handsome face; don't be shy, come on in.'
It comes from Polari, a language that stretches back to the 18th century and contains words and phrases that are still used today. Polari is a part of our gay history that is largely forgotten today, although many of its words still exist and often form the basis of more modern forms of gay slang. It wasn't a 'constructed' language in the accepted sense but more of an extended vocabulary which used the grammatical constructions of English and much of its core vocabulary but with enough new words to make it often unintelligible to the general public. Linguists call this sort of thing a 'cant' or an 'argot' and the idea that most of the population couldn't follow it was, of course, the whole point!
The concept is naturally nothing new to all current and past gay tribes and you only have to watch the film, "Paris is Burning" or even Ru Paul's Drag Race to see how gays can manipulate language to enhance their own identity.
"Bitches better beware; my look is opulence and I own everything. I bring my own realness to the ball. My look is sickening! Eleganza! Extravaganza! You bitches better go ki ki; you're clearly gagging so!"
Polari however, is probably the oldest and most durable of all gay slangs and before mentioning why gay people felt the need to create their own linguistic universe, we should look at the rich history of this lost and colourful language.
The word Polari probably comes from the Italian (and thus Latin) word, Parlare (or Palyaree, Palary ) but there are also words from Romany (originally an Indian dialect), Shelta (an irish tinker slang), and Yiddish amongst others. The origins probably lie in what was known as the lingua franca of the Mediterranean, which enabled travellers, traders and sailors to speak to each other in a mix of Mediterranean languages. A large number of British sailors and merchants picked up the lingua franca in the course of their travels and brought it back to the British Isles. What then often happened was that many of these people lost their seafaring jobs and became vagabonds and travellers. They then spread around the country, often trying to sell their wares, or as parts of entertainer groups and so on. In the early 19th century, large numbers of Italians also emigrated to Britain and became organ grinders, pedlars and even Punch and Judy showmen. They joined the general fairground, or travelling entertainment community and a new mongrel slang became established. Unfortunately there was very little documentation of the growth of Polari because linguists were not interested in the slangs of what were seen as, undesirable, 'underworld' groups and it was not seen as a valid language form. To best illustrate its origins, this is how to count to ten in Polari - you don't have to be a linguist to spot the influences:
una, duey, trey, quater, chinker, sey, setter, otto, nobber, dacha.
The link to gay life came with the growth in so-called Molly houses. As early as the 18th century and probably long before, private rooms for men to meet, drink and have sex were set up in the bigger cities. This grew exponentially with the Industrial Revolution as more and more people crowded into the cities to find work. The homosexual need for secrecy and discretion fitted in perfectly with the more criminal elements of society and Molly houses were born and flourished. 'Poofs' and whores were also traditionally associated with the more theatrical professions, where they mingled with other sorts of social 'outcasts' and along with the need for secret locations, came the need for a secret form of communication. This was a rich breeding ground for Polari and the vocabulary grew according to the influences brought into it.
The two world wars helped both to enrich the lexicon and ensure its underground nature but it suddenly burst into the public consciousness in the 1960's when the BBC played its own private joke on the world at large and featured it heavily in the hit radio show 'Round the Horne'. This was a comedy sketch show presented by a typically English straight man, Kenneth Horne, but featured two of the most outrageous camp characters ever to hit the airways, in Julian and Sandy. These were played by Kenneth Williams (who went on to huge successes in the 'Carry On' films) and Hugh Paddick. Their opening phrase was. "Hello, I'm Julian and this is my friend Sandy" and from then on they created a whole world of camp based on Polari. Kenneth Horne played along as the 'straight man' and the door was opened for every camp British comedian ever since; from Charles Hawtrey, Frankie Howard and Dick Emery to Graham Norton today.
HORNE: Would I have vada'd any of them do you think?
SANDY: Oooaaawwh! He's got all the Palare, ain't he?
JULIAN: [archly] I wonder where he picks it up?
SANDY You may have vada'd one of our tiny bijou masterpiecettes heartface. We made Funny Eek, My Fair Palone
You have to understand what this meant in 60's Britain. The summer of love, the Beatles and the sexual revolution didn't happen until the end of the decade and they emerged out of nowhere. Before then, Britain was still a pretty grey place, still recovering to some extent from the war and a place where homosexuals were frowned on at best and framed, charged and locked up at worst. Long before gaydar became a universal means of spotting the like-minded; gay people needed to be extremely careful how they approached potential partners. There was a need for a means of communication that was safe and discreet. The consequences of being exposed were at best ridicule and at worst, expulsion from society.
Yet Julian and Sandy had middle class Britain in stitches from the moment they opened their mouths. It's not that people weren't aware of who and what they were but their approach was naughty and cheeky rather than vulgar and obscene and the British public saw it as harmless and loved them. The British people themselves have always been generally a pretty tolerant nation when it comes to gay men and women; it was the establishment that took a different view. That a Conservative Prime Minister can now call for gay marriage in Britain is nothing short of earth shattering but thankfully the world changes. What really helped Julian and Sandy was the fact that the vast majority of the listeners couldn't understand a word of what was being said. They got the gist though and knew it was funny, so enjoyed it. The team behind Round The Horne took full advantage of their listeners' ignorance and filled their sketches with suggestiveness and innuendo; pushing the boundaries as far as they could. Much of what is called 'British humour' today is based on just that sort of sexual innuendo, sarcasm and irony. Round the Horne helped pave the way.
More Information: The script from 'Bona bijou tourettes'; a 'Round The Horne' episode
The Polari used in that show wasn't lost on the gay population though and although many words went on to enter the language as a whole: (manky (grubby); ponce; pimp; savvy (Pirates of the Caribbean); khazi or karsey (toilet); bevy (drink); bijou (small); camp; drag; naff (low grade) and ogle, to name but a few) and have stayed there, the gay population retained enough to be able to talk to each other without the straight world understanding. Even the word 'cottaging' (cruising for sex in public toilets) will be understood by most of the heterosexual population. However, many people will also be completely unaware that the widely used word 'naff' in English, actually means 'not available for fucking' in Polari!
More Information: YouTube video of the radio episode, 'Bona Bookshop'
You have to remember that before gay visibility, there was still gay culture and Polari represented that perfectly.
In 1990, Morrissey (of The Smiths) brought out an album entitled 'Bona Drag' and the film 'Velvet Goldmine' featured Polari too:
Friend 1: Ooo, varda Mistress Bona! ('Look at Miss Beautiful')
Friend 2: Vada the omie palome! ('Look at the homosexual')
Friend 1: A tart, my dears, a tart in gildy clobber! ('A slut, darlings, a slut in fancy clothes')
Even the much-loved Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco and other large cities, used to use Polari in their 'services' and even published a Polari version of the Bible in 2003!
The language has never gone away but the advent of gay liberation in the 70's, meant that the associations of Polari; secrecy and inherent bitchiness, were seen by many as being horribly politically incorrect and apart from that, newer forms of slang had grown up to take its place. Furthermore, the 70's saw the beginning of the Clone culture which demanded over-blown masculinity as its trademark and Polari slipped out of general use and remains unknown to many young gay people.
There are a few linguists and gay organisations today (especially in Britain) who are interested enough to try to revive interest in the so-called 'lavender linguistics' and they have come across various characters who can still speak it but most are well into their seventies. Even so, there are younger groups becoming interested in this lost language as shown in the video below.
More Information: Short YouTube interview about Polari with scholar Dr. Paul Baker
To my mind, Polari is an example of a cultural tradition that we should never lose. Okay, it may not be used anymore and may have been replaced by updated and modern/younger forms of gay slang but it is a fascinating and rich part of our history and was unique to gay life in its time. Its richness and variety helped form gay identity long before we felt it safe enough to be more open and represented what it was like to live in secrecy and sometimes fear. Perhaps most importantly, it was full of humour and revealed an ability to laugh at ourselves and others in times when the word 'gay' hadn't been adopted and life was often anything but. Isn't there something inherently great about having a secret vocabulary which heterosexuals can't understand? We may be desperately trying to integrate into general society but we should never forget that being 'different' is not necessarily a bad thing and is something to be proud of. In a time where identity is rapidly becoming homogenised and culturally universal; the idea of having something unique to ourselves is very appealing.
Oh perish the use of the four-letter words
Whose meanings are never obscure!
The Angles and Saxons, those bawdy old birds,
Were vulgar, obscene, and impure.
But cherish the use of the weaseling phrase
That never quite says what you mean!
You'd better be known for your hypocrite ways
Than as vulgar, impure, and obscene.
For those who are interested, here is a list of the most common Polari words. You'll probably recognise several and use some of them too. Maybe a few can be reborn and take on a new life in a 21st century world!
Polari Word List
Ajax -- nearby (from adjacent?)
lilly -- police (Lilly Law)
Read more of HIV and Neuropathy: How to Avoid Becoming a Nervous Wreck, Dave R.'s blog, at TheBody.com.
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