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Polari (or alternatively Parlare, Parlary, Palare, Palarie, Palari; from Italian parlare, "to talk") is a form of cant slang used in Britain by some actors, circus and fairground showmen, professional wrestlers, merchant navy sailors, criminals, prostitutes, and the gay subculture. There is some debate about its origins,[3] but it can be traced back to at least the 19th century and possibly the 16th century.[4] There is a long-standing connection with Punch and Judy street puppet performers who traditionally used Polari to converse.[5]

Palare, Parlary, Palarie, Palari
Region United Kingdom and Ireland
Native speakers
English-based cant
Language codes
ISO 639-3 pld
Glottolog pola1249[2]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.



Polari is a mixture of Romance (Italian[6] or Mediterranean Lingua Franca), Romani, London slang,[6] backslang, rhyming slang, sailor slang, and thieves' cant. Later it expanded to contain words from the Yiddish language and from 1960s drug subculture slang. It was a constantly developing form of language, with a small core lexicon of about 20 words, including: bona (good [7]), ajax (nearby), eek (face), cod (bad, in the sense of tacky or vile), naff (bad, in the sense of drab or dull, though borrowed into mainstream British English with the sense of the aforementioned cod), lattie (room, house, flat, i.e. room to let), nanti (not, no), omi (man), palone (woman), riah (hair), zhoosh or tjuz (smarten up, stylize), TBH ('to be had', sexually accessible), trade (sex), and vada (see), and over 500 other lesser known words.[8] According to a Channel 4 television documentary,[9] there was once (in London) an "East End" version which stressed Cockney rhyming slang and a "West End" version which stressed theatrical and Classical influences. There was some interchange between the two.


Polari was used in London fishmarkets, the theatre, fairgrounds and circuses, hence the many borrowings from Romani. As many homosexual men worked in theatrical entertainment it was also used among the gay subculture, at a time when homosexual activity was illegal, to disguise homosexuals from hostile outsiders and undercover policemen. It was also used extensively in the British Merchant Navy, where many gay men joined ocean liners and cruise ships as waiters, stewards and entertainers.[10]

The almost identical Parlyaree has been spoken in fairgrounds since at least the seventeenth century[11] 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 Romany, 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 in the 1850s. The discussion he recorded references the arrival of Punch in England, crediting these early shows 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).[12] 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."[5]

There are additional accounts of particular words that relate to puppet performance: "'Slumarys' – figures, frame, scenes, properties. 'Slum' – call, or unknown tongue"[5] ("unknown" is a reference to the "swazzle", a voice modifier used by Punch performers, the structure of which was a longstanding trade secret).

There are many sources of Polari lexicons or "dictionaries" online, most of which are random collections with little or no research, rather than a descriptive list of terms in use.

Decline in useEdit

Polari had begun to fall into disuse amongst the gay subculture by the late 1960s. The popularity of the Julian and Sandy characters played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams ensured that some of this secret language became public knowledge. In addition, the need for a secret subculture code declined with the partial decriminalization of adult homosexual acts in England and Wales under the Sexual Offences Act 1967.

In popular cultureEdit

Polari was popularised in the 1960s on the popular BBC radio show Round the Horne starring Kenneth Horne. Camp Polari-speaking characters Julian and Sandy were played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams.[13]

In the Doctor Who serial Carnival of Monsters from 1973, Vorg, a showman, believing the Doctor to also be a showman, attempts to converse with him in Polari. The Doctor states that he does not understand him.[14]

In 2015, filmmakers Brian Fairbairn and Karl Eccleston made "Putting on the Dish", a short film entirely in Polari.[15]

In 2017, a service at Westcott House, Cambridge (a Church of England theological college) was conducted in Polari; the service was held by trainee priests to commemorate LGBT History Month; following media attention, Chris Chivers, the Principal, expressed his regret.[16][17][18][19]


Bona Togs clothes shop

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).

In 2012, artists Jez Dolan and Joseph Richardson created an iPhone app which makes available the Polari lexicon and comprehensive list of etymologies.[20][21]

Entry into mainstream slangEdit

A number of words from Polari have entered mainstream slang. The list below includes words in general use with the meanings listed: acdc, barney, blag, butch, camp, khazi, cottaging, hoofer, mince, ogle, scarper, slap, strides, tod, [rough] trade.

The Polari word naff, meaning inferior or tacky, has an uncertain etymology. Michael Quinion states that it is probably from the sixteenth-century Italian word gnaffa, meaning "a despicable person".[22] There are a number of false etymologies, many based on acronyms—Not Available For Fucking, Normal As Fuck—though these are 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 násfalo, meaning ill. The phrase "naff off" was used euphemistically in place of "fuck off" along with the intensifier "naffing" in Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse (1959).[23] Usage of "naff" increased in the 1970s when television sitcom Porridge employed it as an alternative to expletives which were not considered broadcastable at the time.[22] Princess Anne famously told a reporter, "Why don't you just naff off" at the Badminton horse trials in April 1982.[24]

"Zhoosh" (/ˈʒʊʃ/, /ˈʒʃ/ or /ˈʒʊʒ/[25]) meaning to smarten up, style or improve something, became commonplace more recently, having been used in the 2003 United States TV series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and What Not to Wear.

Polari glossaryEdit


Number Definition
medza 1/2
una, oney one
dooey two
tray three
quarter four
chinker five
say six
say oney, setter seven
say dooey, otter eight
say tray, nobber nine
daiture ten
long dedger, lepta eleven
kenza twelve

Words that may derive from Polari:

Word Definition
acdc, bibi bisexual[26]:49
ajax nearby (shortened form of "adjacent to")[26]:49
alamo! they're attractive! (via acronym "LMO" meaning "Lick Me Out!)[26]:52,59
aunt nell listen![26]:52
aunt nells ears[26]:45
aunt nelly fakes earrings[26]:59,60
barney a fight[26]:164
bat, batts, bates shoes[26]:164
bitch effeminate or passive gay man
bijou small/little (means "jewel" in French)[26]:57
blag pick up[26]:46
bona good[26]:26,32,85
bona nochy goodnight (from Italian – buona notte)[26]:52
butch masculine; masculine lesbian[26]:167
buvare a drink; something drinkable (from Italian – bere or old-fashioned Italian – bevere or Lingua Franca bevire)[26]:167
cackle talk/gossip[26]:168
camp effeminate (possibly from Italian campare "exaggerate, make stand out")
capello, capella, capelli, kapella hat (from Italian – cappello)[26]:168
carsey, karsey, khazi toilet[26]:168
cartes penis (from Italian – cazzo)[26]:97
cats trousers[26]:168
charper to search or to look (from Italian – acchiappare – to catch)[26]:168
charpering omi policeman
charver sexual intercourse[26]:46
chicken young man
clevie vagina[27]
clobber clothes[26]:138,139,169
cod bad[26]:169
corybungus backside, posterior[27]
cottage a public lavatory used for sexual encounters
cottaging seeking or obtaining sexual encounters in public lavatories
cove taxi[26]:61
Dilly boy a male prostitute, from Piccadilly boy
Dilly, the Piccadilly, a place where trolling went on
dinari money (Latin denarii was the 'd' of the pre decimal penny)[28]
dish buttocks[26]:45
dolly pretty, nice, pleasant, from Irish Gaelic dóighiúil 'handsome' pronounced 'doil'
dona woman (perhaps from Italian donna or Lingua Franca dona)[26]:26
ecaf face (backslang)[26]:58,210
eek face (abbreviation of ecaf)[26]:58,210
esong, sedon nose (backslang)[26]:31
fambles hands [27]
fantabulosa fabulous/wonderful
farting crackers trousers [27]
feele/freely/filly child/young (from the Italian figlio, for son)
flowery lodgings, accommodations [27]
fortuni gorgeous, beautiful [27]
fruit gay man
funt pound
fungus old man/beard [27]
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, sometimes also knees (as in "get down on yer lallies")
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 'meshugge', 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
ogle look admiringly
ogles eyes
oglefakes glasses
omi man (from Romance)
omi-palone effeminate man, or homosexual
onk nose (cf "conk")
orbs eyes
oven mouth (nanti pots in the oven = no teeth in the mouth)
palare pipe telephone ("talk pipe")
palliass back
park, parker give
plate feet; to fellate
palone woman (Italian paglione - "straw mattress", [cf. old Cant "hay-bag" = woman]); also spelled "polony" in Graham Greene's 1938 novel Brighton Rock
palone-omi lesbian
pots teeth
remould sex change
riah/riha hair (backslang)
riah zhoosher hairdresser
rough trade a working class or blue collar sex partner or potential sex partner; a tough, thuggish or potentially violent sex partner
scarper to run off (from Italian scappare, to escape or run away or from rhyming slang Scapa Flow, to go)
schlumph drink
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 (a Shelta word, Irish bóthar)
todd (Sloan) or tod 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 female 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 useEdit

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 Round The Horne sketch 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 Parallel Lives, the memoirs of renowned gay journalist Peter Burton

Translation: "As young men...we would style our hair, powder our faces, climb into our great new clothes, don our shoes and wander/walk off to some great little bar. In the bar we would stand around with our gay companions, look at the great 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."

In the Are You Being Served? episode "The Old Order Changes", Captain Peacock asks Mr Humphries to get "some strides for the omi with the naff riah" (i.e. trousers for the fellow with the unstylish hair).[29]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Polari at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Polari". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  3. ^ Quinion, Michael (1996). "How bona to vada your eek!". WorldWideWords. Retrieved February 20, 2006. 
  4. ^ Collins English Dictionary, Third Edition
  5. ^ a b c Mayhew, Henry (1968). London Labour and the London Poor, 1861. 3. New York: Dover Press. p. 47. 
  6. ^ a b "British Spies: Licensed to be Gay." Time. 19 August 2008
  7. ^ "The secret language of polari". Retrieved on 27 August 2015.
  8. ^ Baker, Paul (2002) Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang. London: Continuum ISBN 0-8264-5961-7
  9. ^ David McKenna, A Storm in a Teacup, Channel 4 Television, 1993.
  10. ^ "Gay men in the Merchant Marine, Liverpool Maritime Museum". Retrieved 2010-10-03. 
  11. ^ Partridge, Eric (1937) Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English
  12. ^ Punch and Judy. (with Illustrations by George Cruickshank). Thomas Hailes Lacey, London, 1859
  13. ^ Stevens, Christopher (2010). Born Brilliant: The Life Of Kenneth Williams. John Murray. p. 206. ISBN 1-84854-195-3. 
  14. ^ Baker 2003, p. 161.
  15. ^ Polari, the gay dialect, can be heard in this great short film “Putting on the Dish.”
  16. ^ "Church 'regret' as trainees hold service in gay slang". BBC News. 2017-02-04. Retrieved 2017-02-04. 
  17. ^ Sherwood, Harriet (2017-02-03). "C of E college apologises for students' attempt to 'queer evening prayer'". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2017-02-04. 
  18. ^ Church expresses ‘huge regret’ after Cambridge LGBT commemoration service held in gay slang language | The Independent
  19. ^ Priests delivered a service in gay slang and the church weren't happy | Metro News
  20. ^ New Europe Online (24 November 2013)
  21. ^ Polari on iTunes
  22. ^ a b Quinion, Michael. "Naff". World Wide Words. Retrieved 10 January 2010. 
  23. ^ Waterhouse, Keith (1959). Billy Liar. Michael Joseph. pp. 35, 46. ISBN 0-7181-1155-9.  p35 "Naff off, Stamp, for Christ sake!" p46 "Well which one of them's got the naffing engagement ring?"
  24. ^ The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English Dalzell and Victor (eds.) Routledge, 2006, Vol. II p. 1349
  25. ^ "Definition for zhoosh – Oxford Dictionaries Online (World English)". Retrieved 2012-06-12. 
  26. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac Baker 2003.
  27. ^ a b c d e f g Grose, Francis (2012). 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. tebbo. ISBN 978-1-4861-4841-7
  28. ^ C. H. V. Sutherland, English Coinage 600-1900 (1973, ISBN 0-7134-0731-X), p. 10
  29. ^ "The Old Order Changes". Are You Being Served?. 18 March 1977. 


  • Baker, Paul (2002) Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang. London: Continuum: ISBN 0-8264-5961-7
  • Baker, Paul (2003). Polari – The Lost Language of Gay Men. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-1-134-50635-4. 
  • Elmes, Simon & Rosen, Michael (2002) Word of Mouth. Oxford University Press: ISBN 0-19-866263-7

External linksEdit