Polari – still a secret language?

Polari – still a secret language?

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”

bona     good

cod     bad, in the sense of tacky or vile

eek     face

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

omi     man

palone     woman

riah     hair – an example of back slang mentioned above

TBH     “to be had”, sexually available

trade     sex

zhoosh,  tjuz     smarten up

vada     see

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.

Terms used

Some frequently used terms appear below with definitions. Unsurprisingly many of them are now in use as slang English.

Polari     Definition

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     good

bona nochy     goodnight (from Italian – buona notte)

butch     masculine

buvare     a drink; something drinkable (from old-fashioned Italian – bevere)

cackle     talk/gossip

camp     effeminate (possibly from Italian)

carsey, karsey, khazi     toilet

cats     trousers

charper     to search or to look

charpering omi     policeman

charver     sexual intercourse

chicken     young man

clobber     clothes

cod     bad

corybungus     backside, posterior

cove     taxi

Dilly     the   Piccadilly, a place where trolling went on

dish     buttocks

dolly     pretty, nice, pleasant

dona     woman

ecaf     face (back slang)

eek     face (abbreviation of ecaf)

esong, sedon     nose

fambles     hands

fantabulosa     fabulous/wonderful

farting crackers     trousers

flowery lodgings     accommodations

fortune     gorgeous, beautiful

fungus     old man or beard

gelt     money (Yiddish)

handbag     money

hoofer     dancer

jarry     food, also mangarie (from Italian mangiare or Lingua Franca mangiaria)

kaffies     trousers

lacoddy     body

lallies (lylies)     legs, sometimes also knees

lallie tappers     feet

luppers     fingers (Yiddish)

martinis     hands

meese plain     ugly (from Yiddish)

national handbag     dole, welfare, government financial assistance

ogle     look admiringly

ogles     eyes

omi     man (from Romance)

onk     nose (cf. “conk”)

orbs     eyes

oven     mouth

palliass     back

park, parker     give

plate     feet

palone     woman

pots     teeth

remould     sex change

scarper     to run off (from Italian scappare, or from rhyming slang Scapa Flow, to go)

schlumph     drink

scotch     leg (scotch egg = leg)

screech     mouth, speak

shush     steal (from client)

slap     make-up

stimps     legs

strides     trousers

switch     wig

thews     thighs

troll (to)     walk about (esp. looking for sexual encounter or “trade”)

vera (lynn)     gin

vogue     cigarette

yews     eyes (from French)

zhooshy     showy

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.