I first became aware of Polari from the 1960s BBC radio show Round the Horne starring Kenneth Horne. Camp Polari-speaking characters Julian (Jules) and Sandy were played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams and popularized the use of Polari. It has fascinated me since then.
What is Polari?
Polari (or alternatively Parlare, Parlary, Palare, Palarie, Palari; from Italian parlare, “to talk”) is a form of slang language specific to a particular group or profession (cant). It has been used in Britain by some actors, circus and fairground showmen, criminals, merchant navy sailors, professional wrestlers, prostitutes, and the gay subculture. There has been debate about its origins, but it can be traced back to at least the 19th century and possibly even back to the 16th century. There is also a connection to Punch and Judy street puppet performers who would use Polari to converse.
Origins of Polari
Polari is a mixture of Romance (Italian or Mediterranean Lingua Franca), Romani, London slang, back slang in which words are spoken as though they were spelled backwards, rhyming slang, sailor slang, and thieves’ cant. It later expanded to take in words from the Yiddish language and from 1960s drug subculture slang.
It was a constantly developing form of language, with a small core vocabulary of about 20 words, including:
ajax nearby, shortened form of “adjacent to”
cod bad, in the sense of tacky or vile
lattie room, house, flat, i.e. room to let
naff bad, in the sense of drab or dull, since adopted in mainstream British
nanti not, no
riah hair – an example of back slang mentioned above
TBH “to be had”, sexually available
zhoosh, tjuz smarten up
and over 500 other lesser known words.
Polari was spoken in London fish markets, the theatre, circuses and fairgrounds, accounting for the many borrowings from Romani. It was used by many homosexual men worked in theatrical entertainmentand the merchant navy, and on ocean liners and cruise ships as waiters, stewards, and entertainers. Polari was adopted among the gay subculture, during a time when homosexual activity was illegal, and homosexuals had to hide themselves from hostile outsiders and undercover policemen.
Some frequently used terms appear below with definitions. Unsurprisingly many of them are now in use as slang English.
acdc, bibi bisexual
ajax nearby (shortened form of “adjacent to”)
aunt nell listen!
aunt nells ears
barney a fight
bat, batts, bates shoes
bitch effeminate or passive gay man
bijou small or little (means “jewel” in French) (now slipped into estate agent-speak)
blag pick up
bona nochy goodnight (from Italian – buona notte)
buvare a drink; something drinkable (from old-fashioned Italian – bevere)
camp effeminate (possibly from Italian)
carsey, karsey, khazi toilet
charper to search or to look
charpering omi policeman
charver sexual intercourse
chicken young man
corybungus backside, posterior
Dilly the Piccadilly, a place where trolling went on
dolly pretty, nice, pleasant
ecaf face (back slang)
eek face (abbreviation of ecaf)
esong, sedon nose
farting crackers trousers
flowery lodgings accommodations
fortune gorgeous, beautiful
fungus old man or beard
gelt money (Yiddish)
jarry food, also mangarie (from Italian mangiare or Lingua Franca mangiaria)
lallies (lylies) legs, sometimes also knees
lallie tappers feet
lilly police (Lilly Law)
luppers fingers (Yiddish)
meese plain ugly (from Yiddish)
national handbag dole, welfare, government financial assistance
ogle look admiringly
omi man (from Romance)
onk nose (cf. “conk”)
park, parker give
remould sex change
scarper to run off (from Italian scappare, or from rhyming slang Scapa Flow, to go)
scotch leg (scotch egg = leg)
screech mouth, speak
shush steal (from client)
troll (to) walk about (esp. looking for sexual encounter or “trade”)
vera (lynn) gin
yews eyes (from French)
Decline in use
Polari had begun to decline in usage amongst the gay subculture by the late 1960s. The popularity of the Julian and Sandy characters in Round the Horne ensured that some of this secret language became public knowledge and from the above list it can be seen that some terms have now become mainstream, e.g.clobber, hoofer, ogle, and slap.
Stephen York is a freelance proofreader with over 25 years' experience in book and journal publishing offering proofreading services to publishers, businesses, organizations, educational institutions, academics, students, and authors. He regularly proofreads in digital format a wide variety of media in an extensive range of specialist subject areas, including business, finance, economics, education, marketing, and real estate.