Polari is a form of English folk speech used by effeminate Gay men during the late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries in England. It is most closely linked to parleyaree used by actors, tramps, prostitutes, and circus people in the nineteenth century. Containing words from Italian, French, Romani, and Yiddish, polari also comes from seventeenth century molly culture, cockney rhyme slang, back slang (masking a word by pronouncing it backward), cant, the lingua franca of British sailors, and Irish shelta.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the confluence of theater, sailors, prostitutes, and the growing Gay community around London led to words from various forms of cryptic folk speech coalescing into verbal code for Gay folks, mostly effeminate men but also spoken by Lesbians and the community at large. Police harassment of orientation- and gender-variant people made such cryptic language necessary, as had been the case for molly culture that was persecuted two hundred years prior.
Some polari terms, such as trade (sex or a sexual partner), were also used by mollies in centuries past. The greatest influence, however, came from parleyaree, the coded language used by actors, which had been taken in large part from Italian immigrants who worked in theater, circus, and various traveling shows. Polari and parleyaree are believed to be derived from parlare (Italian: “to speak”). Romani came into parleyaree with the circus as well, while other words were taken from lower-class immigrants from Eastern Europe (Yiddish) and Ireland (shelta). Cryptic folkspeech from local populations (cockney rhyme slang and back slang, cant) also informed polari vocabulary.
Round the Horne
In the 1950s, a radio comedy show called Round the Horne featured Julian and Sandy, two effeminate men who sprinkled their language with polari terms. The show was immensely popular, and exposed the general public to the coded language. Words such as naff (bad, tasteless, Straight) entered into the common speech of Britain as a consequence of Round the Horne.
The association of polari with Gay men as the objects of jokes contributed to its unpopularity in the 1960s and 1970s with the Gay Liberation movement, in part because a cryptic language was no longer as necessary for survival, and in part due to perceived disrespect for Gay people as sex-obsessed and clownish.
At the turn of the twentieth/twenty-first centuries, however, academic interest in polari has transformed its vocabulary into a written as well as spoken form. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in Manchester have created the Polari Bible (from the King James version), and singer Morrissey used it in his 1990 song, “Piccadilly Palare” in the album Bona Drag (polari: “Nice Clothes”) with the line, “So bona to vada, oh you, your lovely eek and your lovely riah” (So good to see you, your lovely face and your lovely hair”).
The underground house music scene at the end of the twentieth century produced a further iteration of cryptic British folk speech called klub polari.
List of Polari Terms
Ajax: next to
Barnet: hair, from rhyme slang: “Barnet Fair”/hair
Barkey: sailor, from Italian barca or “boat”
Basket: clothed genital bulge
Bijou: small and good, from Breton French word for small bejeweled object
Bona: good, from Italian buono
Butch: masculine, perhaps from the USA
Brandy: ass, from Rhyme Slang: “brandy and rum”/bum
Camp: amusing, outrageous, effeminate
Cavaliers and Roundheads: uncircumcised and circumcised penises
Chicken: young men
Chinker: five, from Italian cinque
Cod: bad, scrotum
Cottage: public bathroom
Cull: friend, fool, from cant/molly folk speech. Also short for “testicle”
Dilly boy: prostitute, from Piccadilly Circus, popular spot for male prostitutes
Dish: ass, handsome man
Ecaf: back slang for “face”
Eek: face, short form of ecaf
Efink: back slang for knife
Fantabulosa: fantastic and fabulous
Gelt: money, from German/Yiddish
Homee (omee, omi, omme, omer): man, from Italian uomo
HP: homosexual, from homee palone
Lattie: house or lodging
Lilly: the police, from “Lilly Law,” similar to American Gay folkspeech: “Betty (or Alice) Bluegown” for police
Meshigener: crazy, from Yiddish meshugina
Mince: to walk with small steps
Monjaree: to eat, from Italian
Naff: tasteless, heterosexual, perhaps from Scottish folkspeech but ascribed to an acronym: Not Available For Fucking
Nanti: no, none, nothing, don’t, from Italian niente
Nish: no, nix, nothing, from German/Yiddish nichts, nicht
Ogle: eyes, from cant
Ogle fakes: spectacles
Ogle riahs: false eyelashes
Omee-palone: man-woman or homosexual man
Otter: eight, from Italian otto
Riah: hair, back slang
Scarper: run away
Sharping omi, sharpy: police officer
Tod: alone, from rhyme slang: “Tod Sloan” (American jockey)
Troll: wander, stroll
Vada, varda: to look, to see
Zhoosh: style, from Romani
Baker, Paul. Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men. London: Routledge, 2002.
Baker, Paul. Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang. London: Continuum, 2004.
Houlbrook, Matt. Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2005.
Trudgill, Peter. Language in the British Isles. Cambridge, University of Cambridge, 1984.