Polari: A Tart in Gildy Clobbers

Polari occupies a special place in the history of gay culture, but the subversive dialect is now endangered.

| May/June 2012

  • Polari
    Polari is no longer an anti-language, because the anti-society has dissolved. It survives as a historical curiosity, full of retro charm.

  • Polari

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.

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