What is the history of Polari?

Liz Highleyman | April 05, 2007

Image: Polari - Paul Baker
Polari – a well-developed form of slang spoken by British gay men in the mid-20th century – fell out of favor with the advent of the gay liberation movement, but has enjoyed a revival in recent years.

The origins of Polari are uncertain, but most linguists believe its roots date back at least to the 1800s. Largely derived from Italian, it also includes words drawn from Romany, French, and Yiddish. One early form was used by British Merchant Navy seamen, who often learned the Lingua Franca, a pidgin developed as a means of communication among traders of diverse tongues. Lacking a stable livelihood, many former sailors fell in with itinerant fairground and circus performers – who spoke their own slang known as Parlyaree – and the groups adopted each others' vocabularies. Polari also includes elements of backslang (words spelled backwards), Cockney rhyming slang, the cant of the criminal underworld, and American military jargon.

Polari remained popular among "sea queens" – gay men who worked as stewards or entertainers aboard passenger ships – and in the 1930s, it came into wider use among queer men in London. At a time when homosexuality was illegal, Polari offered gays a way of identifying one another and speaking about forbidden topics.

"Gay people sort of adopted it for themselves like a secret language," recalled an anonymous former seaman quoted in a Merseyside Maritime Museum exhibit about gay life at sea. "You could say 'oh vada the bona eek on the omi,' and it meant have a look at the nice face on that chap over there, and he wouldn't know what on earth you were talking about, or you might get a wallop."

Polari was well suited for gossip, insults, ribald humor, and cruising. Linguist Paul Baker estimates that it included as many as 500 words, of which about 20 were widely understood core terms. Polari was largely comprised of adjectives and nouns, with clothing, body parts, and sexual acts particularly well represented. Several words derived from Polari have been adopted into mainstream English, including "camp," "drag," "butch," and "cottaging" (cruising for sex in a public toilet).

Polari came to wide public attention in the mid-1960s through its use by Julian and Sandy, two stereotypically queeny out-of-work actor characters (portrayed by Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick) on the popular BBC weekly radio comedy series Round the Horne.

In the 1970s, Polari went into decline. The 1967 passage of the Sexual Offenses Act, which decriminalized sex between men, reduced the need for a secret language – which was no longer so secret anyway. With the dawn of the gay liberation movement, many queers eschewed the stereotypical bitchiness associated with Polari, and found its emphasis on appearance, gossip, and sex politically incorrect – or at least terribly old-fashioned.

Since that time, however, Polari has made somewhat of a comeback. Julian and Sandy reached a new audience with the release of CDs and a stage version of Round the Horne. Polari has cropped up in popular culture from Morrissey's 1990 Bona Drag album (featuring the song "Picadilly Palare"), to Todd Haynes' film Velvet Goldmine (1998), to queer hip-hop artist Juha's 2002 album, Polari. The British Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence use it for blessings and feature a Polari version of the Bible on their website.

"[M]ore than a language, Polari is an attitude," says Baker, one that demonstrates how gay men "reconstruct their world and themselves from new perspectives, making sense of experiences that have no existing labels in mainstream culture."

For further reading:

  • Baker, Paul. 2002. Polari - The Lost Language of Gay Men (Routledge).
  • Livia, Anna, and Kira Hall (eds.). 1997. Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality (Oxford University Press).

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

    Editor's note: In South Africa a language known as Gayle was developed by gays (largely in the 'koffie moffie' community). A book - Gayle - the Language of Kinks and Queens: A History and Dictionary of Gay Language in South Africa by Ken Cage is available online.

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