Polari: Not A Want, But A Need

Morse code? But make it gay, sis.

No shade hunty but here’s the piping hot tea. Long before slaying, kiking and okuring, British gays communicated with one another using Polari.

Polari wasn’t a constructed language but rather a mysterious vocabulary developed during the 1960s, a time when society not only stigmatised, but illegalised, homosexuality. Hence why it was exploited as a tool for gay men to express themselves without the fear of being fired, thrown into jail or chemically castrated. More importantly, it was a secret weapon used to find out if the neighbour two doors down was playing for the same team as you.

It’s a combination of back slang, circus slang and broken Yiddish/ Italian and criminal cant. It was fairly common for Polari phrases to make appear in theatre and ballet and is often variously referred to as Palare, Palyaree or Palary. Despite being heavily forgotten, some Polari sayings still exist in modern-day with words like camp, trade and butch all stemming from the gay slang.  

Polari often switched male pronouns for females, this including names – She to him and George to Georgia – to continue allowing the appearance of heterosexuality.

1960 is when the language gained its mainstream popularity, all thanks to an obvious-but-not-official gay character, Julian Horne. It would not be like the media to queerbait, would it now?

Anyway, Julian, played by the late Hugh Paddick, was the lead effeminate character who featured on BBC’s popular comedy radio show, Round the Horne. Every Sunday, audiences of up to nine million people would hear stupendously confusing expressions from him such as; “How bona to vada your eek!” Perhaps a mispronunciation to the ‘heterosexual’ ears, but to those who knew, it translated into it’s nice to see your pretty face.

Although not all phrases were as polite, with the language often being used to discuss topics you wouldn’t want the taxi driver to pick up on the way home from your local. ‘‘Kerterver cartzo so nanti arva,” for example, would let your partner know that sex is off the cards tonight because you have an STI. Whereas, “putting on the dish” would hint that you had prepared for anal sex.

Writers came quickly to realise that Polari served more than one purpose as it allowed them to dabble in sex-related jokes at a time when censorship was strict. Leading the censorship brigade was activist Mary Whitehouse, who battled against the BBC for various perceived indecencies throughout its programming. Meanwhile weekly, Julian and best-friend Sandy would speak openly about sex and not one complaint was received by her. Why? Because she didn’t speak Polari.

With gays beginning the exhausting fight for equality and acceptance, Polari faded as the need to remove Britain’s crippling one-dimensional view of masculinity being anything but camp and effeminate took the forefront. Consequently, this included Round the Horne’s Julian. As more people learned about Polari, the less queer people spook it themselves.

However, below is a list of simple phrases you can learn to help revive the coded language. Forget Bonjour je m’appelle and Buenos Dias and try saying:

  • Acqua: Water
  • Ajax: Near by
  • Aunt Nell: Ears
  • Barcy: Sailor
  • Bijou bar: Gay bar
  • Boner nochy: Good night
  • Dishing the dirt: Having a good gossip
  • Dosh: Money
  • Glossy: Magazine
  • Jarry: Eat
  • Troll: Go for a walk
  • Varda: See or look

Words By Paul McAuley


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