Polari (or alternatively Parlare, Parlary, Palarie, Palari, Parlyaree, from Italian parlare, "to talk") was a form of cant slang used in the gay subculture in Britain. It was revived in the 1950s and 1960s by its use by camp characters Julian and Sandy in the popular BBC radio show Round the Horne, but its origins can be traced back to at least the 19th century. There is some debate about how it originated.
Polari is a mixture of Romance (Italian or Mediterranean Lingua Franca), Romany, backslang, rhyming slang, sailor slang, and thieves' cant. Later it expanded to contain words from the Yiddish language of the Jewish subculture which settled in the East End of London, the US forces (present in the UK during World War II) and 1960s drug users. It was a constantly developing form of language, with a small core lexicon of about 20 words (including bona, ajax, eek, cod, naff, lattie, nanti, omi, palone, riah, zhoosh, TBH, trade, vada), with over 500 other lesser-known items.
Polari was used in London fishmarkets, the theatre, and the gay subculture. As Polari, it was used to disguise homosexual activity from potentially hostile outsiders (such as undercover policemen), but also because many gay men worked in theatrical entertainment where the lingo originated (including fairgrounds and circuses, hence the many borrowings from Romani in Polari). The almost identical Parlyaree has been spoken in fairgrounds since at least the 17th century and continues to be used by show travellers in England and Scotland. As theatrical booths, circus acts and menageries were once a common part of European fairs it is likely that the roots of Polari/Parlyaree lie in the period before both theatre and circus became independent of the fairgrounds. The Parlyaree spoken on fairgrounds tends to borrow much more from Romani, as well as other languages and argots spoken by travelling people, such as cant and backslang.
It was also used extensively in the Merchant Navy, where many gay men joined cruise ships as waiters, stewards and entertainers.
On one hand, it would be used as a means of cover, to allow gay subjects to be discussed aloud without being understood; on the other hand, it was also used by some, particularly the most visibly camp and effeminate, as a further way of asserting their identity.
Decline in use
Outside of fairgrounds and circuses (where Parlyaree was never associated with gay subculture) Polari had begun to fall into disuse by the late 1960s. The popularity of Julian and Sandy ensured that this secret language was public property, and the gay liberationists of the 1970s viewed it as rather degrading, divisive and politically incorrect (a lot of it was used to gossip about or criticise people, as well as discussing sexual exploits).
Since the mid-1990s, with the redistribution of tapes and CDs of Round The Horne and increasing academic interest, Polari underwent a slight revival. It will probably never die out completely, but new words are continually being invented and updated to refer to more recent cultural concepts – for example, the recent term "Madonna claw" means an old withered hand.
In 1990 Morrissey titled an album Bona Drag – Polari for "nice outfit" – and the title of his "Piccadilly Palare" single that same year is an alternative spelling of what would be "Piccadilly Polari."
Also in 1990, comic book writer Grant Morrison created the character Danny the Street (based on Danny La Rue), a sentient transvestite street for the comic Doom Patrol. Danny speaks largely in Polari.
The 1998 film Velvet Goldmine, which chronicles a fictional retelling of the rise and fall of glam rock, contains a 60s flashback in which a group of characters converse in Polari, while their words are humorously subtitled below.
In 2002, two books on Polari were published, Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men, and Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang (both by Paul Baker). Also in 2002, hip hop artist Juha released an album called Polari, with the chorus of the title song written entirely in the slang.
Entry into standard English
A great many words from Polari have entered mainstream slang.
This word became famous in the television sitcom Porridge in the 1970s, which employed it as an alternative to expletives which were not at the time considered broadcastable.
There are a number of folk etymologies of the term "naff", many based around acronyms – Not Available For Fucking, Normal As Fuck – though these are probably backronyms. More likely etymologies include northern UK dialect naffhead, naffin, or naffy, a simpleton or blockhead; niffy-naffy, inconsequential, stupid, or Scots nyaff, a term of contempt for any unpleasant or objectionable person. An alternative etymology may lie in the Romany naflo, itself rooted in nasvalo, meaning no good, broken, or useless.
A later use, from the 1980s, refers dismissively to heterosexual people. Porridge also introduced a verb sense: "naff off!", later famously used by Princess Anne in 1982 .
"Zhoosh" has entered English more recently, especially through the TV series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Its initial consonant, unique in that position in English, has led new users to generate variant spellings such as "zoosh", "soozh", ""tszuj." etc. The word begins and ends with the same phoneme, the "zh" sound as in the word "measure".
The word cottaging (anonymous sex in a public lavatory) has also entered mainstream English, thanks to some high profile cases.
This term for rubbish has not only become common in the UK, but also to a great extent in America (where it is almost always spelled "baloney"), as a euphemism for bullshit. For example, "That guy's full of baloney!".
Derived from drink or beverage, has again become common English slang, although it is debatable just how directly related to Polari this is, as "bevvy" is a simple abbreviation of beverage.
|other names||Palare, Parlary, Palarie, Palari, Parlyaree|
|ajax||nearby (from adjacent?)|
|alamo||hot for you/him|
|aunt nell||listen, hear|
|aunt nelly fakes||earrings|
|basket||the bulge of male genitals through clothes|
|bitch||effeminate or passive gay man|
|bijou||small/little (means "cute" or "jewel" in French)|
|blue||code word for "homosexual"|
bona nochy - goodnight (from Italian - buona notte)
|butch||masculine; masculine lesbian|
|buvare||a drink (from Italian - bere or dialectal Italian - bevere or Lingua Franca bevire|
|capello/capella||hat (from Italian - cappello)|
|carsey||toilet, also spelt khazi|
|carts/cartso||penis (from Italian - cazzo)|
|chaver||to shag/a shag (sexual intercourse) (from Italian dialectal "chiavare"?)|
|cottage||public toilet (particularly with reference to cottaging.
Early public toilets in the UK were designed to resemble a small house
|cottaging||having or looking for sex in the above cottage|
|dinarly||money (thought to be derived from "Dinari")|
|dog and bone||telephone|
|dolly||pretty, nice, pleasant|
|dona||woman (perhaps from Italian donna or Lingua Franca dona)|
|drag||clothes, esp. women's clothes|
|eek||face (abbreviation of ecaf)|
|HP (homy polone)||effeminate gay man|
|jarry||food, also mangarie (from Italian mangiare or Lingua Franca mangiaria)|
|khazi||toilet, also spelt carsey|
|latty/lattie||room, house or flat|
|lilly||police (Lilly Law)|
|mangarie||food, also jarry (from Italian mangiare or Lingua Franca mangiaria)|
|meese||plain, ugly (from Yiddish "meeiskeit, in turn from Hebrew מָאוּס repulsive, loathsome, despicable, abominable)|
|meshigener||nutty, crazy, mental (from Yiddish, in turn from Hebrew מְשֻׁגָּע crazy)|
|naff||awful, dull, hetero|
|nanti||not, no, none|
|national handbag||dole, welfare, government financial assistance|
|nishta||nothing, no (from Yiddish נישטא - "there isn't")|
|omi||man (from Romance)|
|omi-palone||effeminate man, or homosexual|
|onk||nose (cf "conk")|
|palare pipe||telephone ("talk pipe")|
|plate||feet; to fellate|
|scarper||to run off (from Italian scappare, to escape or run away or from rhyming slang Scarpa Flow, to go)|
|scotch||leg (scotch egg=leg)|
|shush||steal (from client)|
|shyker/shyckle||wig (mutation of the Yiddish sheitel)|
|so||homosexual (e.g. "Is he 'so'?")|
|tootsie trade||sex between two passive homosexuals (as in: 'I don't do tootsie trade')|
|trade||sex, sex-partner, potential sex-partner|
|troll||to walk about (esp. looking for trade)|
|vada/varder||to see (from Italian - vedere)|
vardered - vardering
|yews||(from French "yeux") eyes|
|zhoosh||style hair, tart up, mince|
zhoosh our riah - style our hair
Polari in use
"Omies and palones of the jury, vada well at the eek of the poor ome who stands before you, his lallies trembling." (Taken from "Bona Law", a sketch from Round The Horne, written by Barry Took and Marty Feldman)
(Translation: "Men and women of the jury, look well at the face of the poor man who stands before you, his legs trembling.")
"So bona to vada...oh you! Your lovely eek and your lovely riah." (Taken from "Piccadilly Palare", a song by musician Morrissey)
(Translation: "So good to see...oh you! Your lovely face and your lovely hair.")
"As feely ommes...we would zhoosh our riah, powder our eeks, climb into our bona new drag, don our batts and troll off to some bona bijou bar. In the bar we would stand around with our sisters, vada the bona cartes on the butch omme ajax who, if we fluttered our ogle riahs at him sweetly, might just troll over to offer a light for the unlit vogue clenched between our teeth." (Taken from the memoirs of renowned gay journalist Peter Burton, Parallel Lives)
(Translation: "As young men...we would style our hair, powder our faces, climb into our fabulous new clothes, don our shoes and wander/walk off to some fabulous little bar. In the bar we would stand around with our gay companions, look at the fabulous genitals on the butch man nearby who, if we fluttered our eyelashes at him sweetly, might just wander/walk over to offer a light for the unlit cigarette clenched between our teeth.")
Is Polari a language?
Careful search and enquiry has failed to find any grammatical structures of Polari that are different from those of English. Therefore it would seem more accurate to refer to Polari as a linguistic cipher, replacement lexicon or an argot than a language or dialect. Since it is used in free variation with English, it might also be called a jargon.
However, some Polari speakers produced expressions that would leave the realm of simple substitution of English words: for example, palone vadas omi-palone very cod, literally WOMAN LOOKS MAN-WOMAN VERY BAD, for "that woman is giving this gay man a dirty look."
- African American Vernacular English (sometimes called Ebonics)
- Caló (Chicano)
- Cockney rhyming slang
- Gail language
- Lunfardo and Vesre
- Baker, Paul (2002) Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang. London: Continuum: ISBN 0-8264-5961-7
- Baker, Paul (2002) Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men. London: Routledge: ISBN 0-415-26180-5
- Elmes, Simon & Rosen, Michael (2002) Word of Mouth. Oxford University Press: ISBN 0-19-866263-7
- http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=pld Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition (online version)
- Quinion, Michael (1996). How bona to vada your eek!. WorldWideWords. Retrieved on February 20, 2006.
- Baker, Paul (2002) Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang. London: Continuum ISBN 0-8264-5961-7
- Partridge, Eric (1937) Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English
- Julian and Sandy feature on Kenneth Williams Website
- Chris Denning's article on Polari with bibliography
- Hugh Young's Lexicon of Polari
- "World Wide Words" column on the use of Polari in Round the Horne
- The Polari Bible compiled by The Manchester Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence
- Colin Richardson, The Guardian, 17 January 2005, "What brings you trolling back, then?"
- BBC - Voices, An interview with four members of a project for older gay men. (In voice clip 2, Polari is spoken)
- Polari FAQ
- Juha's Polari album
- Audio slang excerpt from VicLit novel The Worms of Euston Square
LGBT and Queer studies
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