It’s the third and final article on our Pride series (don’t worry there’ll still be plenty more on LGBTQ history to come!!!!)
Now being gay used to be illegal so a secret language developed that helped all the queers identify each other in a public space without fear of being arrested or having the shite beaten out of you by police.
That secret language was called Polari….lets dive straight in
Polaris origins are a mish mash of Italian, Cockney rhyming slang, Romany and Yiddish. It started developed within the fairground, seafaring and theatrical communities in the 30s and 40s before being adopted by gay men in the 50s and 60s as a way of socially identifying each other.
If you saw a sexy geezer in your local drinking hole all you had to do was slide over to him and drop a bit of Polari to see if he was also a ‘friend of Dorothy’ For example:
‘Ello dish, nice basket you’ve got for me.’
This translates as: ‘Hello sexy, I like the bulge in your trousers!’
If he was into it he’d probably ask if you were looking for trade… ie THE SEX!
It sounds gloriously camp and theatrical (because it was) and was very much a part of the working class gay haunts in London.
Gay men embraced and played up to the theatricality of the language, both protecting themselves and expressing themselves with a way of communicating that was just for them.
It was popularised in mainstream culture by two comic characters Julian And Sandy in the popular radio sketch show Round The Horne.
Played by Kenneth Williams (him off all the Carry Ons) on and Hugh Paddick. They’d revel in salacious gossiping with the straight man host Kenneth Horne.
SANDY: “Don’t mention Málaga to Julian, he got very badly stung.”
HORNE: “Portuguese man o’ war?”
JULIAN: “Well I never saw him in uniform…”
It died out in the 70’s after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. Also gay men had to remind everyone else that not all of them were theatrical and camp queens. It is not ONE SIZE FITS ALL or rather one stereotype fits all, so Polari fell out of favour.
So many gay slang terms still used (not always in a good way) come from Polari, like camp, mince, drag, butch (applied to masculine lesbians) and cottaging.
Want to have a go? Here’s some choice words for you to try out. Give us your best Polari!
Basket – The bulge in a dudes trousers.
Bold – Daring
Bona – Good
Buns – Bum
Butch – masculine
Camp – Effeminate
Chicken – A Young Man
Dolly – Pretty
Dish – A sexy man
Eek – Face
Fantabulosa – Wonderful
Fruit – An older gay gentleman
Naff – Not available for fucking
Omi – Man
Omipolone – A camp gay man
Polone – a lady
Riah – Hair
Slap – Makeup
Trade – SEX
Troll – Walking
Vada – To look at
So to use a classic Julian & Sandy line:
‘How nice to vada your dolly old eek’
would basically be ‘Nice to see your pretty face!’
This was interesting, where can I find out more?
This brilliant short film, set in the 1960’s shows us two men having a conversation in Polari https://youtu.be/Y8yEH8TZUsk
Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.