Alright, Nellyarda, this one’s important. It’s all about how we communicate — or, how we did. Today, we’re going to talk about Polari. Polari was a secret, coded slang language (or “cant language”) that was used by gay men (and also, only occasionally, by lesbians) in England up until the late 1960’s. A way to hide who you were and what you were talking about when out and about in public places where it wasn’t legal to be openly gay.
Now, if you’re sitting there wondering who “Nellyarda” is — that’s a good sign you live in a place where these hidden languages aren’t still in use. “Nellyarda” isn’t a person, it’s a verb — it just means “listen.” Fortunately, in much of the world, talking to other gay people about gay things isn’t a crime and you don’t need to speak in code (although we still have a lot of slang that leaves people in mainstream culture scratching their heads. To be honest, sometimes even I scratch my head — what the heck is a “squirrel friend” anyways?) But while we delve into the history of Polari, I want you to keep in mind that there are places in the world today where these coded languages are not history — where they are still used but are still vital to the survival of the underground LGBTQ+ culture there. Bahasa binan is still spoken in Indonesia; in South Africa and Zimbabwe gay English-speakers are probably familiar with Gayle language, while Bantu speakers are using IsiNgqumo. Those are just a couple examples, but there’s a whole lot of these types of languages which people examining queer language (otherwise called “Lavender linguistics“) might want to take a look at. I promise to touch on more of them in the future.
Anyways, back to Polari. The roots of Polari can be traced back to 16th century — to the traveling entertainment troupes of commedia dell’arte — a really old form of professional, kind of vaudevillian theater that originated in Italy. While traveling around Europe, entertainers developed a sort of jargon of their own, which they called “parlyaree” from the Italian word “parlare” meaning “to talk.” Parlyaree expanded a bit, started to get used by sailors — and as it expanded it picked up words from other places — thieves cant, backslang, etc; and other languages from all across Europe too, including Yiddish, French, Shelta, and others. It became popular amongst all of the undesirable parts of society — criminals, Romani travelers, prostitutes….
And, of course, “undesirables” also meant “the gays.” Most likely it was traveling gay entertainers that brought parlyaree to Britain, as a version of parlyaree was commonly used in Punch & Judy puppet shows. Many of the words were innately sarcastic or sexualized in their meanings. Speakers would often pick campy nicknames for themselves, gay men often using names that were effeminate. The language created a cultural attitude that was strong and resilient in the face of brutal abuse and discrimination. Polari was particularly useful for two things: gossip and finding men to hook up with.
Polari, coming full circle, found its way into British entertainment — adopted by the Punch & Judy shows that had brought it to the British Isles to begin with, and — much much later — in the radio comedy series Round the Horne which began airing on March 7, 1965. Round the Horne was wildly popular, and the characters of Julian and Sandy — the two characters who spoke simplified Polari — were especially popular. The good news is that they helped British society become more accepting of homosexuals. That said, gay sex was still a crime and it was certainly not great for the gay community’s safety to have the mainstream culture, including members of law enforcement, hearing their hidden language on the radio each week. This was probably one of the early contributing factors in the decline of Polari. By 1967, anti-sodomy laws in the UK began to be repealed, which meant the necessity of Polari significantly decreased.
By the 1970s, Polari had fallen so out of favor that the gay magazine Lunch called it “ghettoising”. By 2000, when Paul Baker of Lancaster University surveyed 800 gay men, roughly half of them had never even heard of Polari. But Baker was just ahead of a resurgence of interest — a curiosity from both linguistic scholars and from queer people looking at their own history. In 2003, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, collaborating with Tim Greening-Jackson (AKA Sister Matic de Bauchery) created a Polari translation of the Bible. Although it’s available online (see that link in the previous sentence!) a leatherbound copy was displayed in a glass case at John Rylands Library in Manchester. In 2012, that copy was read aloud in the world’s longest reading of the Polari Bible — performed at a Manchester art gallery.
Despite being essentially a dead language, the more recent ties to religion have stirred up a lot of controversy. In 2017, Wescott House — a college that trains priests for the Church of England — held an evensong entirely in Polari, led by trainees from the college. The intent, according to the trainees, was to sort of “queerify” their evening prayer service, to make room within their faith for queer people. That’s a noble intent, but of course not everyone appreciated the way it was done (particularly because in Polari, “the Lord” translates to “the Duchess”) and ultimately the Church of England issued a public apology calling the event “hugely regrettable.”
Although it’s technically considered a dead language, there are some words and phrases that were definitely part of the Polari vocabulary that we still commonly use today — “drag” and “trade” are still part of our popular slang with their meanings virtually unchanged, “zhoosh” meaning “to style”, most recently popularized by Carson Kressley in the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy television series. Polari was a constantly changing language, and as such it’s difficult to research and there’s no complete dictionary of terms anywhere. I think that makes it more important to preserve the words we still know were used — so I am going to try to make a complete dictionary for this site. Stay tuned!