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Polari (or alternatively Parlare, Parlary, Palare, Palarie, Palari, Parlyaree,[1] from Italian parlare, "to talk") was a form of cant slang used in Britain by actors, circus or fairground showmen, criminals, prostitutes etc., and latterly by the gay subculture. It was revived in the 1950s and 1960s by its use by camp characters Julian and Sandy in the popular BBC radio shows Beyond our Ken and Round the Horne, but its origins can be traced back to at least the 19th century (or, according to at least one source, to the 16th century[2]). There is some debate about how it originated.[3] There is a longstanding connection with Punch and Judy street puppet performers who traditionally used Polari to talk with each other. [4]

Description[edit | edit source]

Polari is a mixture of Romance (Italian[5] or Mediterranean Lingua Franca), Romany[5], London slang,[5] 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 (tjuz), TBH, trade, vada), with over 500 other lesser-known items.[6]

Usage[edit | edit source]

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[7] 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.

Henry Mayhew gave a verbatim account of Polari as part of an interview with a Punch and Judy Showman from the 1850s. In the discussion, he recorded references the arrival of Punch in England, crediting these early performances to a performer from Italy called Porcini (see also John Payne Collier's account of Porsini (Payne Collier calls him Porchini), in Punch and Judy [8] Mayhew provides the following:

Punch Talk

"'Bona Parle' means language; name of patter. 'Yeute munjare' - no food. 'Yeute lente' - no bed. 'Yeute bivare' - no drink. I've 'yeute munjare,' and 'yeute bivare,' and, what's worse, yeute lente.' This is better than the costers' talk, because that ain't no slang and all, and this is a broken Italian, and much higher than the costers' lingo. We know what o'clock it is, besides."[9]

There are additional accounts of performance and particular words that relate to puppet performance. " 'Slumarys' - figures, frame, scenes, properties. 'Slum'- call, or unknown tongue."[10] By 'unknown' he is referring to the voice modifier used by Punch performers called a swazzle, the composition of which was a longstanding trade secret.

It was also used extensively in the Merchant Navy, where many gay men joined cruise ships as waiters, stewards and entertainers[citation needed].

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.

A new wave of London fashionista's still use Polari language in everyday use, an example shown in fashion blogs such as 'Bona Drag Boys' - - a mens fashion blog which features a strong use of 'Polari' words.

Decline in use[edit | edit source]

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). In addition the need for a subculture code declined with the legalisation of adult homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967.

Contemporary usage[edit | edit source]

File:Bona Togs shop Jersey.jpg

Bona Togs clothes shop name

Since the mid-1990s, with the redistribution of tapes and CDs of Round The Horne and increasing academic interest, Polari underwent a slight revival. 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.[citation needed]

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.

Characters in Will Self's story, Foie Humain, the first part of Liver, use Polari.

Entry into standard English[edit | edit source]

Many words from Polari have entered mainstream slang; some recent examples are:

Naff[edit | edit source]

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Wiktionary: naff

This word became famous in the television sitcom Porridge in the 1970s, which employed it as an alternative to expletives which were not considered broadcastable at the time.

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 [1].

Zhoosh[edit | edit source]

"Zhoosh" has entered English more recently, especially through the TV series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. It has been used at least once by Stacy London on What Not to Wear, when advising a subject of makeover to enhance their clothing choice. Its initial consonant has led new users to generate variant spellings such as "zoosh", "soozh", ""tszuj." ""zhoozh"" etc. The word begins and ends with the same phoneme, the Cyrillic "zh".

Polari glossary[edit | edit source]


Word Definition
AC/DC a couple
ajax nearby (from adjacent?)
alamo hot for you/him
aunt nell listen, hear
aunt nells ears
aunt nelly fakes earrings
aunt nell danglers earrings
barney a fight
basket the bulge of male genitals through clothes
batts shoes
bibi bisexual
bitch effeminate or passive gay man
bijou small/little (means "jewel" in French)
blag pick up
blue code word for "homosexual"
bod body
bold daring
bona good

bona nochy - goodnight (from Italian - buona notte)

bonaroo wonderful, excellent
bungery pub
butch masculine; masculine lesbian
buvare a drink (from Italian - bere or old-fashioned Italian - bevere or Lingua Franca bevire)
cackle talk/gossip
camp effeminate (possibly from Italian campare "exaggerate, make stand out")
capello/capella hat (from Italian - cappello)
carsey toilet, also spelt khazi
carts/cartso penis (from Italian - cazzo)
cats trousers
charper to search (from Italian - chiappare - to catch)
charpering omi policeman
charver to shag/a shag (sexual intercourse) (from Italian - chiavare)
chicken young boy
clobber clothes
cod naff, vile
cove friend
crimper hairdresser
dally sweet, kind. Possibly an alternate pronunciation of dolly.
dilly boy a male prostitute
dinarly money (thought to be derived from "Dinari")
dish butt(ocks)
dolly pretty, nice, pleasant
dona woman (perhaps from Italian donna or Lingua Franca dona)
dorcas term of endearment, 'one who cares'. The Dorcas Society was a ladies' church association of the nineteenth century, which made clothes for the poor.
drag clothes, esp. women's clothes (prob from Romani - indraka - skirt)
doss bed
ecaf face (backslang)
eek face (abbreviation of ecaf)
ends hair
esong nose (backslang)
fantabulosa fabulous/wonderful
feele/freely/filly child/young
fruit queen
funt pound
gelt money (Yiddish)
handbag money
hoofer dancer
HP (homy polone) effeminate gay man
jarry food, also mangarie (from Italian mangiare or Lingua Franca mangiaria)
jubes breasts
kaffies trousers
khazi toilet, also spelt carsey
lacoddy body
lallies (lylies) legs
lallie tappers feet
latty/lattie room, house or flat
lills hands
lilly police (Lilly Law)
lyles legs (prob. from "Lisle stockings")
lucoddy body
luppers fingers (Yiddish - lapa - paw)
mangarie food, also jarry (from Italian mangiare or Lingua Franca mangiaria)
martinis hands
measures money
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)
metzas money (Italian -mezzi "means, wherewithal")
mince walk (affectedly)
naff awful, dull, hetero
nanti not, no, none (Italian - niente)
national handbag dole, welfare, government financial assistance
nishta nothing, no (from Yiddish נישטא - "there isn't")
ogle look, admire
ogles eyes
oglefakes glasses
omi man (from Romance)
omi-palone effeminate man, or homosexual
onk nose (cf "conk")
orbs eyes
palare pipe telephone ("talk pipe")
palliass back
park, parker give
plate feet; to fellate
palone woman (Italian paglione - "straw mattress", [viz. old Cant "hay-bag" = woman])
palone-omi lesbian
pots teeth
proxy-ook autobiographical book that is especially revealing about people other than the main subject
remould sex change
riah/riha hair (backslang)
riah zhoosher hairdresser
scarper to run off (from Italian scappare, to escape or run away or from rhyming slang Scapa Flow, to go)
schlumph drink
schmutter clothes (maybe from Yiddish "schmatte" - rag)
scotch leg (scotch egg=leg)
screech mouth, speak
sharpy policeman (from - charpering omi)
sharpy polone policewoman
shush steal (from client)
shush bag hold-all
shyker/shyckle wig (mutation of the Yiddish sheitel)
slap makeup
so homosexual (e.g. "Is he 'so'?")
stimps legs
stimpcovers stockings, hosiery
strides trousers
strillers piano
switch wig
thews thighs
tober road
todd (Sloanne) alone
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 - dialect vardare = guardare - look at)

vardered - vardering

vera (lynn) gin
vogue cigarette (from Lingua Franca - fogus - "fire, smoke")
vogueress woman smoker
willets breasts
yews (from French "yeux") eyes
zhoosh style hair, tart up, mince
(Romani - "zhouzho" - clean, neat)

zhoosh our riah - style our hair

zhooshy showy

Polari in use[edit | edit source]

"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 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?[edit | edit source]

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."

See also[edit | edit source]

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • 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

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition (online version)
  2. Collins English Dictionary, Third Edition
  3. Quinion, Michael (1996). How bona to vada your eek!. WorldWideWords. URL accessed on February 20 2006.
  4. Henry Mayhew, London Labor and the London Poor, [1861] Vol3, Dover Press, New York, 1968 p47
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 "British Spies: Licensed to be Gay." Time. August 19, 2008
  6. Baker, Paul (2002) Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang. London: Continuum ISBN 0-8264-5961-7
  7. Partridge, Eric (1937) Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English
  8. Punch and Judy. (with Illustrations by George Cruickshank). Thomas Hailes Lacey, London, 1859
  9. Henry Mayhew, London Labor and the London Poor, [1861] Vol. 3, Dover Press, New York, 1968 p47
  10. Ibid, Mayhew.

External links[edit | edit source]

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