Tag Archives: queer history

Polari

Hallo, and it’s bona to varda your dolly old eeks again after so long!

As I sit here in my bijou lattie, with my morning mangare and buvare, recovering from being totally daffy last night, I thought it was time to screeve a bit on the fabulosa lingo that is polari. Now, I know what you’re going to say: What’s a young striller like me know about the parlare of the omi polones of yesteryear? But new lingos of any sort fascinate me, and to be honest, I’m just a little bit bold…

If you’ve not listened to a lot of 1960s radio, you probably won’t have any idea what I’m talking about, which is quite fair enough – Polari (parlare, parlyare, polare, parlaree) is a language that faded out almost completely in the latter half of the twentieth century and, but for a few hardy souls determined to do all they can to preserve it, might have vanished completely but for the occasional airing on BBC Radio 4 Extra, when they choose to re-run Round The Horne. It’s an intriguing cant slang made up of bits of English, Italian, Yiddish and various forms of slang – back slang, thieves’ cant, rhyming slang and theatre jargon – and the main period of use was between the 1920s and 1960s, mostly in the cities of the UK. It was also an extremely secretive language, used by homosexuals both male and female as a way of communicating without being detected by those who oughtn’t to know (the police, for instance).

The social history is the main thing that attracts me to Polari, of course, being both an historian and a bit “versatile” myself – and since one of the main characters of my novel is a homosexual living in London in the 1920s, I feel I ought to learn some of his lingo – but aside from those interests, I am primarily a linguist by profession and cant slangs of this sort fascinate me immensely. It may have flourished in the mid 20th Century, but its history is considerably longer, deriving from the cant used in London in theatres, fairgrounds, circuses – hence the many borrowings from Romance/Italian and from Romany. The evidence is quite murky, as one would expect for a private slang existing between those working in a small range of trades, and even when it became more widely used, it still never achieved the status of “language” – people working in theatrical circles would most likely have picked up a handful of the most regularly used words and incorporated them into their own speech. It has been estimated that there were only 20 or so core words, but Polari was expanding and changing all the time to incorporate new bits of slang and jargon as they came and went, as it was taken up by new groups – the Merchant Navy, and the city-based gay “subculture”.

So how did Polari go from being a theatrical/showman cant to taking on the role of private lingo for sailors and homosexual men and women? The answer, of course, is equivocal – it’s hard to be certain of how these slangs transfer between groups – but it is probably reasonable to observe that homosexuality and the theatre do tend to go hand in hand. However it happened, by the early 20th century Polari had been adopted by the gay subculture of London as its own private slang and the vocabulary expanded accordingly, though it still maintained its old links with the theatre. As for how it stowed away on board ship, apparently that is thanks to the young gay men who joined the Merchant Navy and brought their cant slang with them. However it happened, it spread rapidly during the early-mid 20th century, until the decriminalisation of (male) homosexuality in 1967 (that is, the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in private between two consenting men over the age of 21, which was not lowered to 18 until 1994 – just throwing that in there for the sake of queer history and a small amount of anger!) did away with the need for a secret code to discuss such matters. It was also rejected by gay liberationists, and the fact that Polari had been used extensively on Round The Horne a few years before the decriminalisation of homosexuality had changed it irrevocably from secret slang to popular culture – even if the listeners didn’t know the precise meanings of the phrase, the tone of voice was often pretty clear! Polari’s decline was perfectly natural; a lack of necessity led to its decreasing usage, and but for academic interest, it might have died out completely.

Now, though it’s tremendous fun to write in a secret code, it is not appropriate for me to nick other people’s work and provide a vocab list here – the basics are widely available. I think, however, that it is better in context. Since Polari was a spoken language, seldom a written one, it seems most appropriate to link to some recordings, and the best place to start there is with Julian and Sandy. I’d like to use some BBC-authorised versions, but there are none, so here are some privately posted clips of them on YouTube, such as this clothing gem. And if you ignore the video, this is a brilliant rendition of a very famous Shakespeare speech in Polari.

There are not many clips of Polari being spoken outside of Round The Horne, but I have long enjoyed this little except from Velvet Goldmine, which is, I think, rather splendid. There is also a not especially good quality video which is worth it just for Kenneth Horne talking about Polari in an interview in the first minute or so of the vid.

If it’s reading material you want, the most active academic on the subject is Professor Paul Baker, who has published two books on the topic: Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men, and Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang (both published in 2002) – and there is also a clip from The One Show in which the Prof discusses the subject of Polari; but if you’re into your technology, then I have to mention that recently there has been a project to rescue the language, run by Jez Dolan and Joseph Richardson, a couple of artists, working with a number of academics, including the aforementioned Prof. Baker. It’s called the Polari Mission – and if you’re an iPhone or iPad user, they’ve written this brilliant little app which you can download from their website.

If, like me, you have downloaded the app, you may see from browsing through the index that quite a number of the words are common in “ordinary” English as well. Terms such as barney = fight are quite common and have probably moved from English to Polari, and terms concerning sexuality, such as butch, camp, drag etc. are logical transitions, but when you come upon such words as ajax, bevvy, bijou, the well-known “fantabulosa”, and my own favourite phrase, “That’s yer actual…”, then…well, it’s difficult to say whether they entered normal English via Polari or via some other form of slang (words bled between Cockney and Polari slangs to a great extent in the early 20th century). But there is a certain pleasure in hearing Princess Anne tell photographers to “Naff off,” and knowing that she is, perhaps unwittingly, using slang that was once reserved for people who lived in very different circumstances…