Polari

Did you know that until a few decades ago there existed a secret gay language called Polari?   More properly a cant, Polari is thought to have originated in East London as a private means of communicaton among gay men.

In the old days — meaning any time before about forty years ago when being gay in any open sort of way could get you locked up or worse no matter how famous and important you were — Polari allowed gay and bisexual men to communicate with each other in safety, without the straight world knowing what they were saying.

9947843-williams-kenneth.jpg
along with Hugh Paddock, the actor Kenneth Williams somewhat popularized Polari in the late 1960s in the UK through his character on the BBC radio show Round the Horne 

The code’s vocabulary was somewhat tilted toward the practical:  parts of the body, times of day, words for sex and words covering social matters.  It included quite a bit of backslang (English words in reverse) but also borrowed in a loose way from various romance languages, particularly Italian and certainly a decent amount of nonsense.  Here’s a sample sentence (via Wikipedia)

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

which translated is

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

There are certainly older men still living who can still speak Polari — though in a few decades this may no longer be the case.  Here are two such men, Stuart Feather and Bette Bourne:

Bourne in particular is pretty unsentimental about the language and its purpose:

So it’s good to have your own language, and those things are not … they’re forced.  They’re forced upon you by circumstances, they’re not just invented as a camp joke.  They’re very practical.

I have various feelings about Polari — reverence and respect for the ingenuity and survivorship of those who used it, sadness that all first hand knowledge of it may be lost (though there seem to be some attempts to preserve it), surprise that I’d never heard of this language before.  But I think I’ll take a cue from Bette and focus on gratitude — mostly for the fact that it’s no longer required for survival.

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Polari

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