Is Polari its own language?
Nellyarda, zhoosh the riah, titivate, schlumph your Vera down, and palare that omee for the bevvies because I’ve nanti dinarli.
(Translation: Listen, style your hair, make yourself look pretty, drink up your gin, and talk to that man to get a drink because I’m skint).
The words you’ve just read are Polari words. Polari encompasses a lost linguistic world. It was pugnacious, camp, and racy – so if you blush easily, click away now. You’re about to encounter some Billingsgate (bad / puerile language).
Some gay people – men in particular – did indeed used to speak their own language. Of sorts. It was less a language and more of a cant – a coded lexicon used exclusively to avoid detection by unwanted outsiders. That could’ve been the police, disapproving conservative society, or simply the group on the table next to you that you were bitching about.
So the short answer is – gay people don’t speak their own language any more. But, in 1960s Britain, gay men in large cities – particularly London – came close to doing so. It’s now archaic because the oppressive conditions which brought it about have, encouragingly, evaporated into equality in Britain. But there’s a move from language lovers like myself to preserve and promote Polari as a kind of linguistic artefact – so the toils, battles, and cheeky, resilient character of those who spoke it are remembered and respected. I particularly enjoy using the Polari app, which gives etymologies and explanations of the full Polari lexicon as far as records exist. Every time you shake your phone, a randomizer flashes up a new Polari word on your screen. Fantabulosa!
Polari was used in the early 20th century in larger cities in a very priggish Britain. It was predominantly the domain of gay men. In linguistics, as in many other areas, lesbian visibility was problematic.
Jennifer Justice, Orderly Daughters, and Hilda Handcuffs: making light of the law
You’ll see from the Z-A boxout (done backwards in Polari’s subversive tradition) that many Polari words had common themes. It’s no accident that there were several coded names for the police – I’ve listed six below (Sharpering Omees; Jennifer Justice; Orderly Daughters; Hilda Handcuffs; Betty Bracelets; Lily Law). The use of female names for what was, back then, a predominantly testosterone-charged force cheekily undermines their authority and bravado. Polari was spoken at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain so avoiding detection was as important as expressing a contempt for the law and its enforcers.
Polari sits in the same bracket as other cryptolects. A cryptolect is a secretive language used to confuse and exclude others and affirm the character and solidarity of a marginalized subculture. In that sense, hip hop rap, cockney rhyming slang, and Polari are all cousins. Each had their own semantic weapon which was devised to confound the expectations of the group that used it. Cockneys used clever rhymes, proving that the working classes could compete in terms of intellect. A great example, like many cockney rhymes, was adopted by Polari proponents themselves: Haris / aris means ‘arse’. Aris is short for ‘Aristotle’, which rhymes with ‘glass and bottle’, shortened to just ‘glass’, which rhymes with ‘arse.’ Wonderfully convoluted. Hip hop, meanwhile, uses slang and patois about bling and success to defy racial poverty and underclass stereotypes. All three cants emerged for a similar reason and from similar conditions: a linguistic revolution to challenge the middle / upper class male, pale, and stale power holders in conservative society, and the police who upheld this unequal status quo.
The power of camp and preserving Polari
Polari’s weapon was camp – turning on its head the idea that ‘camp’ was effete and submissive, instead transforming it into something powerful and defiant. It did this by imprinting a flamboyant flair and strange panache using a complete mish-mash of words – borrowed from cockney rhyming slang, backslang (when a word is pronounced backwards such as the Polari riah, esong, and emag – hair, nose, and game), Yiddish, Italian, theatre slang, and naval slang. You might have dropped a Polari word into a sentence to surreptitiously show the attractive man you were talking to that you’re gay – or test if he was. Or to avoid disapproval – even arrest. Or simply to bitch, and get away with it.
Polari shows its age with some casual racism (Schvartza for black man; Schinwhars for Chinese person; Kosher homie for Jewish man) but it was also a cheeky way of speaking sexily in public without attracting attention – Kerterver cartzo so nanti arva (I can’t have sex because I’ve got an STI) – was hardly something you’d broadcast. Similarly, Nada to vada in the larder (small penis) was a phrase you’d keep on the down low.
Professor Paul Baker, from Lancaster University’s Department of Linguistics, is a world expert on Polari. I asked him if Polari should be treated like an endangered language – and should we therefore preserve it? Professor Baker says: ‘Yes, it should be preserved – that’s why I did my PhD in it and created an app for it; I didn’t want the voices of the men and women who lived through that period to be forgotten. So often history is of the powerful, not the disempowered. But preserving something isn’t the same as reviving it. I don’t want the conditions which brought it into being to be repeated. We never need to hide our sexuality from anyone. We have nothing to be ashamed of.’
From Round the Horne to alphabet soup
Polari was popularized by the 1960s BBC radio series Round the Horne, featuring two camp Polari-speakers, Julian and Sandy. Once it gained popularity, the cat was out of the bag. 1967 saw the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain – making Polari redundant.
Due to the internet and dating apps that now allow you to connect to others in different countries, the modern gay lexicon is no longer isolated to one place and time. It has become a universally understood and adopted code within a large community. Today’s version of Polari seems to focus on mainly shrouding in secrecy the peccadillos, put-downs, and peculiar fetishes of some members of the gay community, away from the judgment of outsiders. More similarly coded, quirky terms are likely to spring up and spread quickly so gay people can speak to (/about) each other in further exclusive and interesting ways.
To many, today’s alphabet soup of the initialism LGBTQQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, intersex) makes the gay community seem, at the least, idiosyncratic. But what it really shows is something more encouraging: a vibrant diversity and warm inclusiveness that, endearingly, wants to see nobody feeling like an outsider. The semantics of equality may not be as sexy, catchy, or witty. But they reflect a community that has moved from marginalized and ostracized to mainstream – and even celebrated.
Now you’re speaking my language.
A quick guide to some of the best Polari words, running, in the subversive tradition, from Z-A
- Zhoosh the riah (style your hair. Riah is backslang for ‘hair.’)
- Vadavision (TV)
- Vaggerie (to go)
- Trundling cheat (a car)
- Titivate (to make oneself look pretty)
- Sweat chovey (the gym)
- Strillers omee (a pianist)
- Shietel (a wig)
- Sharpering-omee (a policeman)
- Sharda! (what a pity!)
- Schlumph your Vera down (drink up your gin)
- Scapali (to run / escape)
- Riah shusher (a hairdresser)
- Palone-omee (a lesbian)
- Palare the omee for the bevvies (talk to the man to get a drink)
- Orderly daughters (the police)
- Ogle filters (sunglasses)
- NTBH (ugly – acronym of ‘not to be had’)
- Nada to vada in the larder (small penis)
- Nix my dolly (never mind)
- Nix mungaree (nothing to eat)
- Nish the chat (stop talking)
- Nanti pots in the cupboard (no teeth)
- Montel (watch)
- Meshigener (crazy)
- Mauve (someone who appears to be gay)
- Matlock mender (dentist)
- Mary-Ann (a gay Catholic man)
- Manly Alice (a masculine gay man)
- Mais oui ducky (oh yes)
- Lullaby cheat (a baby)
- Lily law (the police)
- Ling grappling (sex)
- Lau your luppers on the strillers bona (play something nice on the piano)
- Lattie on wheels (a taxi)
- Lattie on water (a ship)
- Kerterver cartzo (a venereal disease)
- Kerterver cartzo so nanti arva (I can’t have sex because I’ve got an STI)
- Joggering omee (an entertainer)
- Jennifer Justice (the police)
- I’ve nanti dinarly (I’ve got no money)
- Hilda handcuffs (the police)
- Groinage (jewellery)
- Gildy (fancy)
- Gardy loo (look out – from French ‘gare l’eau’ – beware of the water – when a chamber pot’s contents were thrown out of a window)
- Fungus (an old man)
- Fortuni (gorgeous)
- Ferricadooza (a knock down blow)
- Fantabulosa (wonderful)
- Esong (nose – from backslang, the backwards spelling of nose)
- Emag (a game – also derived from backslang)
- Dry martini (left hand. Right hand = sweet martini)
- Duchess (a rich or grand gay man)
- Dorcas (one who cares – from The Dorcas Society – a ladies’ Church association in the 19th century which made clothes for the poor)
- Cut the cackle (shut up)
- Cosy (costume – from the Australian for swimming costume)
- Cold calling (to walk into a pub looking for company)
- Charpering omie (a policeman)
- Catever (bad)
- Carnish ken (a restaurant)
- Cake the eke in slap (apply make-up – eke is derived from the backslang for face – ecaf)
- Buvare (a drink)
- Bona vardering (good looking)
- Bona to vada! (nice to see you!)
- Bona nochy (good night)
- Bona dish (nice bum)
- Bodega (a shop)
- Billingsgate (bad language – named after the fish market in London where foul language was common)
- Betty bracelets (the police)
- B-flat omee (a fat man)
- Auntie (older gay man)
- And no flies (Honestly!)