The History of Polari
Polari (also seen as 'Palare') is a gay slang language, which has now
almost died out. Gay slang in Britain dates back to the involvement of the homosexual
subculture with the criminal "underworld". The homosexual subculture of the
Eighteenth Century mixed with the gypsies, tramps & thieves of popular song
to produce a rich cross-fertilisation of customs, phrases and traditions.
As the Industrial revolution dramatically changed settlement patterns, more
and more people drifted away from villages and small communities and moved
to larger towns in search of work and opportunity. In these larger urban
locations, the scope for the development of communities of outcasts
substantially increased. The growth of molly houses (private spaces for men
to meet, drink, have sex together and practice communal rituals) encouraged
the creation of a molly identity. A linguistic culture developed, feeding
into that profession traditionally associated with poofs and whores:
When I started to research Polari, it was difficult to find any written
material about Polari as what little used to exist was out of print.
However, in the last few years, more and more people have been finding out
about it, and several web sites and magazine articles have been written.
Polari featured heavily in the "Julian and Sandy" sketches on the BBC radio
program "Round the Horne" in the late 60s, and this is how a lot of people
first heard of Polari. A few words like 'bona' can still be seen in gay
publications, used for camp effect. There are even hairdressers in London
and Brighton called "Bona Riah".
Polari itself was never clearly defined: an ever-changing collection of
slang from various sources including Italian, English (backwards slang,
rhyming slang), circus slang, canal-speak, Yiddish and Gypsy languages. It
is impossible to tell which slang words are real Polari.
Linguists still argue about where it came from. The larger part of its
vocabulary is certainly Italian in origin, but nobody seems to know how the
words got into Britain. Some experts say its origins lie in the lingua
franca of the shores of the Mediterranean, a pidgin in use in the Middle
Ages and afterwards as a medium of communication between sailors and
traders from widely different language groups, the core of this language
being Italian and Occitan. Quite a number of British sailors learnt the
lingua franca. On returning home and retiring from the sea it is supposed
that many of them became vagabonds or travellers, because they had no other
means of livelihood; this threw them into contact with roving groups of
entertainers and fairground people, who picked up some of the pidgin terms
and incorporated them into their own canting private vocabularies.
However, other linguists point to the substantial number of native Italians
who came to Britain as entertainers in the early part of the nineteenth
century, especially the Punch and Judy showmen, organ grinders and peddlars
of the 1840s. Much of parlarey, the travelling showmen's language, appears
to be derived from the lingua franca or the vocabulary of travelling actors
and showmen during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Specifically
theatrical parlyaree included phrases such as joggering omee (street
musician), slang a dolly to the edge (to show and work a marionette on a
small platform outside the performance booth in order to attract an
audience) and climb the slanging-tree (perform onstage). Nanty dinarly
(having no money) also had a peculiarly theatrical translation in the
phrase "There's no treasury today, the ghost doesn't walk."
The disappearance of large numbers of traveling costermongers and
cheapjacks by the early twentieth century effectively denied the language
its breathing space. As many of the travelling entertainers moved sideways
into traveling circus, so the language moved with them, kept alive as a
living and changing language within circus culture.
By the mid-twentieth century, there had also been a cross-over to a
recognisably gay form of slang, with polari used by the gay community to
communicate in code in elaborate forms. Words such as trade and ecaf
(backslang for face, shortened to eek) became part of gay subculture.
Blagging trade (picking up sexual partners), zhoosing your riah (doing your
hair), trolling to a bijou bar (stepping into a gay club) and dishing the
dirt (recounting gossip) all became popular coded phrases to describe and
encode an emerging homosexual lifestyle. By the 1950's, with secret
homosexual clubs emerging in swinging London and the Wolfenden Committee
discussing the possibility of law reform around (homo) sexuality, it seems
appropriate that polari should raise its irreverent head.
Polari became an appropriate tool with which to confuse and confound the
naff omees (straight men). It traveled the world via the sea queens, who
incorporated navy slang into a new version of the language and also
accommodated local dialects and phrases.
But Polari is a linguistic mongrel. Words from Romany (originally an
Indian dialect), Shelta (the cant of the Irish tinkers), Yiddish, back
slang, rhyming slang and other non-standard English are interspersed with
words of Italian origin.
So it would not be surprising to find that both the Italian showman
and the lingua franca theories are right, each contributing words at
different stages in Polari's development. This might indeed explain the
substantial number of synonyms noted at various times. However, the
vocabulary is not well recorded, and now may never be, because it was
normal until quite recently for linguists to ignore such low-life forms,
which rarely turned up in print (and then only in partial glossaries). But
we do know that a few of Polari's terms have made it across the language
barrier into semi-standard English, much of it seeming to come to us via
Cockney: karsey, a lavatory; mankey, poor, bad or tasteless; ponce, a pimp;
savvy to know, understand; and scarper to run away.
The rest have stayed within the theatrical and circus worlds, and
have also been incorporated particularly into the private languages of some
homosexual groups, as Julian and Sandy make very clear. Some writers have
sought to claim Polari exclusively for the gay community, renaming it
Gayspeak. In the 1990s it certainly seems to be heavily used by some city-
based British gays (but only male gays, not lesbians), who have invented
new terms like nante 'andbag for "no money" (handbag here being a self-
mocking example of metonymy). However, it can scarcely have always been so,
unless every fairground showman, circus performer, strolling player,
cheapjack and Punch and Judy man in history was gay, which seems somewhat