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, but it can be traced back to at least the 19th century and possibly the 16th century. There is a long-standing connection with Punch and Judy street puppet performers who traditionally used Polari to converse.
|Palare, Parlary, Palarie, Palari|
|Region||United Kingdom and Ireland|
Polari is a mixture of Romance (Italian or Mediterranean Lingua Franca), Romani, London slang, 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 ), 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. According to a Channel 4 television documentary, 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.
The almost identical Parlyaree has been spoken in fairgrounds since at least the seventeenth century 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). 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."
There are additional accounts of particular words that relate to puppet performance: "'Slumarys' – figures, frame, scenes, properties. 'Slum' – call, or unknown tongue" ("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.
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.
In 2015, filmmakers Brian Fairbairn and Karl Eccleston made "Putting on the Dish", a short film entirely in Polari.
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.
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).
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". 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). 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. Princess Anne famously told a reporter, "Why don't you just naff off" at the Badminton horse trials in April 1982.
"Zhoosh" (//, // or //) 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.
|say oney, setter||seven|
|say dooey, otter||eight|
|say tray, nobber||nine|
|long dedger, lepta||eleven|
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Words that may derive from Polari:
|ajax||nearby (shortened form of "adjacent to"):49|
|alamo!||they're attractive! (via acronym "LMO" meaning "Lick Me Out!):52,59|
|aunt nelly fakes||earrings:59,60|
|bat, batts, bates||shoes:164|
|bitch||effeminate or passive gay man|
|bijou||small/little (means "jewel" in French):57|
|bona nochy||goodnight (from Italian – buona notte):52|
|butch||masculine; masculine lesbian:167|
|buvare||a drink; something drinkable (from Italian – bere or old-fashioned Italian – bevere or Lingua Franca bevire):167|
|camp||effeminate (possibly from Italian campare "exaggerate, make stand out")|
|capello, capella, capelli, kapella||hat (from Italian – cappello):168|
|carsey, karsey, khazi||toilet:168|
|cartes||penis (from Italian – cazzo):97|
|charper||to search or to look (from Italian – acchiappare – to catch):168|
|cottage||a public lavatory used for sexual encounters|
|cottaging||seeking or obtaining sexual encounters in public lavatories|
|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)|
|dolly||pretty, nice, pleasant, from Irish Gaelic dóighiúil 'handsome' pronounced 'doil'|
|dona||woman (perhaps from Italian donna or Lingua Franca dona):26|
|eek||face (abbreviation of ecaf):58,210|
|esong, sedon||nose (backslang):31|
|farting crackers||trousers |
|feele/freely/filly||child/young (from the Italian figlio, for son)|
|flowery||lodgings, accommodations |
|fortuni||gorgeous, beautiful |
|fungus||old man/beard |
|HP (homy polone)||effeminate gay man|
|jarry||food, also mangarie (from Italian mangiare or Lingua Franca mangiaria)|
|khazi||toilet, also spelt carsey|
|lallies (lylies)||legs, sometimes also knees (as in "get down on yer lallies")|
|latty/lattie||room, house or flat|
|lilly||police (Lilly Law)|
|lyles||legs (prob. from "Lisle stockings")|
|luppers||fingers (Yiddish — lapa — paw)|
|mangarie||food, also jarry (from Italian mangiare or Lingua Franca mangiaria)|
|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")|
|naff||awful, dull, hetero|
|nanti||not, no, none (Italian — niente)|
|national handbag||dole, welfare, government financial assistance|
|omi||man (from Romance)|
|omi-palone||effeminate man, or homosexual|
|onk||nose (cf "conk")|
|oven||mouth (nanti pots in the oven = no teeth in the mouth)|
|palare pipe||telephone ("talk pipe")|
|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|
|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)|
|scotch||leg (scotch egg=leg)|
|sharpy||policeman (from — charpering omi)|
|shush||steal (from client)|
|shyker/shyckle||wig (mutation of the Yiddish sheitel)|
|so||homosexual (e.g. "Is he 'so'?")|
|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
|vogue||cigarette (from Lingua Franca — fogus - "fire, smoke")|
|yews||(from French "yeux") eyes|
|zhoosh||style hair, tart up, mince
(Romani - "zhouzho" - clean, neat)
zhoosh our riah — style our hair
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).
- Polari at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
- Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Polari". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
- Quinion, Michael (1996). "How bona to vada your eek!". WorldWideWords. Retrieved February 20, 2006.
- Collins English Dictionary, Third Edition
- Mayhew, Henry (1968). London Labour and the London Poor, 1861. 3. New York: Dover Press. p. 47.
- "British Spies: Licensed to be Gay." Time. 19 August 2008
- "The secret language of polari". liverpoolmuseums.org.uk. Retrieved on 27 August 2015.
- Baker, Paul (2002) Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang. London: Continuum ISBN 0-8264-5961-7
- David McKenna, A Storm in a Teacup, Channel 4 Television, 1993.
- "Gay men in the Merchant Marine, Liverpool Maritime Museum". Liverpoolmuseums.org.uk. Retrieved 2010-10-03.
- Partridge, Eric (1937) Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English
- Punch and Judy. (with Illustrations by George Cruickshank). Thomas Hailes Lacey, London, 1859
- Stevens, Christopher (2010). Born Brilliant: The Life Of Kenneth Williams. John Murray. p. 206. ISBN 1-84854-195-3.
- Baker 2003, p. 161.
- Polari, the gay dialect, can be heard in this great short film “Putting on the Dish.”
- "Church 'regret' as trainees hold service in gay slang". BBC News. 2017-02-04. Retrieved 2017-02-04.
- 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.
- Church expresses ‘huge regret’ after Cambridge LGBT commemoration service held in gay slang language | The Independent
- Priests delivered a service in gay slang and the church weren't happy | Metro News
- New Europe Online (24 November 2013) http://www.neurope.eu/article/take-polari-safari
- Polari on iTunes
- Quinion, Michael. "Naff". World Wide Words. Retrieved 10 January 2010.
- 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?"
- The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English Dalzell and Victor (eds.) Routledge, 2006, Vol. II p. 1349
- "Definition for zhoosh – Oxford Dictionaries Online (World English)". Oxforddictionaries.com. Retrieved 2012-06-12.
- Baker 2003.
- Grose, Francis (2012). 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. tebbo. ISBN 978-1-4861-4841-7
- C. H. V. Sutherland, English Coinage 600-1900 (1973, ISBN 0-7134-0731-X), p. 10
- "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
|Look up naff in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Chris Denning's article on Polari with bibliography
- The Polari Bible compiled by The Manchester Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence
- Polari Mission exhibit (archived) at the University of Manchester's John Rylands Library
- Colin Richardson, The Guardian, 17 January 2005, "What brings you trolling back, then?"
- BBC – Voices, An interview with four members of a project for older gay men. (In voice clip 2, Polari is spoken)
- Liverpool Museums: The secret language of polari (archived)
- Paul Clevett's Polari Translator