When the World Oral Literature Project at the University of Cambridge released a list of 3,524 dead and dying languages in 2010, the entry that drew the most attention was Polari, an underground language used by gay men in London until the 1970s.
A poll of British gay men in 2000 revealed that half of the respondents had never heard of it. When the Cambridge list came out, Polari scholar Paul Baker was surprised that it had been considered endangered, not extinct.
Polari first gained popularity in London, in the mid-20th century, when homosexuality was a crime that the police were eager to prosecute, and blackmail was rampant. Alan Turing, the cryptanalyst who cracked the Germans’ Enigma code, was caught having an affair with a man in 1952; after being tried for gross indecency, he agreed to a “treatment” of female hormone injections, then committed suicide in 1954.
As Baker writes in Polari—The Lost Language of Gay Men (2002), Polari was “a way of tearing down ‘heterosexual’ reality and remolding it as a world seen through gay eyes, with gay standards.” Its users tended to be flamboyant working-class “queens”—arch eccentrics in the model of Quentin Crisp, with rouged cheeks and flashy scarves. Or they were married men who used Polari to pick up “trades” on the sly. Or pent-up sailors in the Merchant Navy, known to the land folk as “seafood.” Or male prostitutes who hung around Piccadilly Circus (“the dilly”).
Polari was verbal safe space, a kind of Jabberwocky for the marginalized, but can it be classified as a language? “It may be ideal for gossiping about potential sexual conquests on the gay scene,” Baker writes, “but outside this genre its usefulness becomes less viable.”
Baker considers several alternative categories: slang, pidgin, creole, sociolect. He settles, hesitantly, on “anti-language,” a corollary to the idea of an “anti-society,” which he defines as “a conscious alternative to society, existing by resisting either passively or by more hostile, destructive means.” Language elevates society; anti-language subverts it.
Radiantly funny, Polari combines the droll humor of Cockney rhyming slang with the bitchiness of drag queens. Let’s start with the basics: bona for good, ducky for dear. A man was an omee and a woman was a palone, so a gay man was an omee-palone and a lesbian was a palone-omee.
Unsurprisingly, Polari has a glut of words for homosexual (queen, nelly, duchess), sex (arva, charver, troll), and police, who were trivialized with femme put-downs (betty bracelets, lillian law, jennifer justice). Body parts were particularly well named: lallies for legs, ogles for eyes, lappers for hands, pots for teeth, and aris (short for Aristotle) for arse.
Then there are dozens of wry phrases, such as the color of his eyes (penis size) and cleaning the kitchen (oral or anal sex). Your mother’s a stretcher-case translates as “I’m tired.” A manly alice was a masculine homosexual. One might be described as a size queen, a sea queen, a blasé queen, or a black-market queen. A sexually available man was TBH, to be had. Anything tasteless or undesirable was naff. (Originally used as a pejorative term for “heterosexual,” the word became popular among its targets, who adopted it into mainstream British slang.)
If it sounds like Polari is just a sassy version of English, consider what happens when you string it all together: “ ‘So sister,’ I polaried. ‘Will you take a varder at the cartz on the feely-omi in the naf strides; the one with the bona blue ogles over there polarying the omi-palone with a vogue on and the cod sheitel.’ ” (Translation: “‘So friend,’ I said. ‘Will you check out the package on that young man in the ugly trousers; the one with the pretty blue eyes over there talking with the gay guy with the cigarette and the bad wig.’ ”)
That passage, from James Gardiner’s photo book Who’s a Pretty Boy Then?, hints at one of the main uses of Polari: gossiping about other men.
Baker traces Polari’s earliest roots to Thieves’ Cant, a language derived from Elizabethan slang. Besides its panoply of words for a lawbreaker, Cant used the word cheat to rename body parts—smelling cheat for nose, hearing cheat for ear—a formulation that trickled down to Polari. (A rogering cheat is a penis.) Molly Houses—private clubs where gay men gathered in the 18th century—had a vernacular of their own, including, for sex, riding a rump, the pleasant deed, and caudle making.
Both dialects fed into Polari’s direct predecessor, Parlyaree, a 19th-century slang popular among actors and circus performers. In a Parlyaree song cited by the lexicographer Eric Partridge, a busker plots to evade his landlord: “We’ll all have to scarper the jetty in the morning, / Before the bonee omee of the carsey shakes his doss.”
An influx of Italian street performers into 19th-century England might account for Polari’s Italian influence, in words like bona, manjaree, and polari itself (from parlare, “to speak”). Baker also finds traces of Romani, Yiddish, lingua franca (the common tongue of Mediterranean ports), and the American GIs who flooded England during World War II and left behind Yankee slang: blowjob, cruise, butch.
So why didn’t America have its own gay language? The conditions were just as bad, and the need for secrecy just as pressing. But in the gay pockets of New York and San Francisco in the ’50s, language was not the primary means of code. “It was tone of voice, intonation, more than actual words,” recalls James McCourt, author of Queer Street: Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947–1985. Men would communicate in stares and glances, cruising each other at designated stalls or bookstores. They would meet for sex in the Ramble in Central Park, or in the dunes of Fire Island.
By the ’60s, British culture began to thaw, and Polari morphed from underground pickup slang to a defiant means of self-expression. “We flaunted our sexuality,” one speaker recalled in 1979. “We were pleased to be different. We were proud and secretly longed to broadcast our difference to the world.”
Polari’s most famous representatives came into prominence while homosexuality was still illegal. Julian and Sandy, fictional out-of-work actors played with panache by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams, were featured every Sunday afternoon from 1964 to 1969 on the BBC radio series Round the Horne, a variety show hosted by the comedian Kenneth Horne. Julian and Sandy’s act always came last, and it was always the most popular. Their fans ranged from members of the Royal Ballet to young boys in provincial towns who would fantasize about the louche London life.
Not that the duo was explicit about their sexuality. Much of their ribald humor stems from innuendo. Typically, a segment would revolve around a new shop or business that Mr. Horne would patronize. He would discover its two outrageous proprietors, moonlighting between acting gigs. In one installment, Mr. Horne visits a legal establishment called Bona Law, looking for help with a parking ticket. Julian isn’t sure if they can take the case: “We’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most of our time.”
Julian and Sandy introduced the wider world to terms like omee-palone and used Polari to get racy jokes past the censors. In one sketch, Julian says innocently, “All the dishes are dirty,” to which an offended Sandy responds, “Speak for yourself!” The savvy listener might have known that dish was slang for “attractive person.” But only the initiated would have known it could also mean “asshole.”
They gabbed about their choreographer friend Reynard La Spoon and a hunky masseur named Gordon. (“He’ll give you a good pummeling, I’ll tell you!”) Mr. Horne was their straight man in both senses. If he ever hinted at some knowledge of Polari, the boys would make insinuating remarks:
Julian: We are the Cecil B’s of the 16 De Mille.
Julian: Small-budget pictures, really.
Mr. Horne: Would I have vadered any of them, do you think?
Sandy: Oooh! He’s got all the Polari, hasn’t he?
Julian: I wonder where he picks it up?
They were naughty but lovable, with a flair for double entendre. Yes, they were stereotypes of campy queens, but they gave the rest of England a taste of the dilly. Like Glee and Will & Grace decades later, they were just palatable enough for the masses, but smart enough to be subversive:
Sandy: Don’t mention Malaga to Julian, he got very badly stung.
Mr. Horne: Portuguese man-o’-war?
Julian: Well, I never saw him in uniform.
Paradoxically, Julian and Sandy’s popularity hastened Polari’s demise. Once the average Londoner knew what an omee-palone was, the jig was up. The Polari on Round the Horne was bare-bones, but it was catchy enough to undermine its own usefulness. As Baker writes, Polari got “publicized out of existence.”
In 1967 the Sexual Offences Act legalized homosexuality for consenting adults; pubs and other businesses could cater openly to gay men. The Stonewall riots in New York came two years later.
In the 1970s backlash against camp, liberated gay men came to see fops like Julian and Sandy as retrograde. With the advent of a new, hypermasculine ideal (think of mustachioed porn stars and the Village People), the sexual currency of “queens” declined. The infamous hanky code—handkerchiefs, worn in back pockets, that specified erotic tastes—made coded language obsolete. Polari became synonymous with minstrelsy, a ghettoizing holdover from a bygone era. By the ’80s it was moribund. In 1999 the gay magazine Boyz compared it to Benny Hill imitating a Chinaman.
In linguistics, there are several types of language death. Often a language dissolves gradually, as native speakers adapt to a dominant culture. Sometimes a conquest or government decree wipes out a vernacular overnight. Occasionally, there is a genocide. In the case of Polari, the gay community turned on its effeminate elders, essentially biting off its own tongue. In Polari’s decline, there are elements of “linguicide,” or what some linguists call “language murder.”
In the past decade or so, a new generation has embraced it as part of their gay heritage, sparking a Polari renaissance. Polari Magazine, a gay journal, features book reviews and marriage-equality news. The London nightclub Madame Jojo’s, home of the Kitsch Cabaret, encourages its staff to use words like omee and fantabulosa. The George, a gay bar in Dublin, has a neon sign that reads “Bona Polaris.” In London, the writer Paul Burston runs a “gay literary salon” called Polari. In Stoke-on-Trent, outside London, you will find a coffee shop called the Polari Lounge, which opened in 2010; there are menu items named after Polari words, and a beginner’s guide on each table.
Polari is no longer an anti-language, because the anti-society has dissolved. It survives as a historical curiosity, full of retro charm.
The highbrow appropriation of Polari is ironic; as Baker told me, “It’s supposed to be bitchy and about sex.” In that last regard, Polari isn’t so different from any other language. After all, so much of speech stems from desire—the need to express what churns within the body and the heart. Sixty years ago, the desire was furtive, but Polari hid in plain sight. It stands as a testament to the creativity of confined spaces, and to the power of laughing in the face of powerlessness.
Michael Schulman works at The New Yorker, where he covers theater and other subjects for The Talk of the Town. Excerpted from The Believer (February 2012), a literary-minded magazine featuring book reviews, interviews, and long-form journalism.