Polari, The Forgotten Gay Language
Polari, The Forgotten Gay Language

Polari, The Forgotten Gay Language

When homosexuality was illegal up until 1967 the Gay Community had to use own language.

Since LGBTI+ people have recently been able to exist more openly in society without fear of persecution by the state we have been able to talk openly about express our feelings and personalities in public. But this has not always been the case. Homosexuality was driven so far underground in the United Kingdom that many turned to a new, secretive yet expressive form of communication.

Polari first came about in the theatre and the gay subculture in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, becoming more widely known from its hidden use by camp radio characters in a popular BBC radio show which ran from 1964 to 1969. It grew up primarily to disguise homosexual activity from potentially hostile outsiders (such as undercover policemen), but also because many gay men worked in entertainment (including circuses, hence the many borrowings from Romany in Polari). It was also used extensively in the Merchant Navy, where many gay men joined cruise ships (particularly P&O) as waiters, stewards and entertainers. It was mainly used by camp or effeminate gay men, who tended to come from working class backgrounds. In a sense, they had the least to lose by being “out”.

Polari had begun to fall into disuse by the late 1960s, the popularity of Julian and Sandy ensured that this secret language was public property, and the gay liberationists of the 1970s viewed it as rather degrading, divisive and politically incorrect (a lot of it was used to gossip about or criticise people, as well as discussing sexual exploits). Since the mid-1990s, with the redistribution of tapes and CDs of Round the Horne and increasing academic interest, Polari was undergone a slight revival. It will probably never die out completely, but new words are continually being invented and updated to refer to more recent cultural concepts – for example, the recent term “Madonna claw” means an old withered hand. In 2002 two books on Polari were published, Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men, and Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang (both by Paul Baker).

Polari Dictionary

ajax = nearby (from adjacent?)
basket = the bulge of male genitals through clothes
batts = shoes
bijou = small
bod = body
bold = daring
bona = good
butch = masculine; masculine lesbian
camp = effeminate (origin: KAMP = Known As Male Prostitute)
capello = hat
carts/cartso = penis
carsey = toilet, also spelt khazi
chicken = younger male
charper = search
charpering omi = policeman
cod = naff, vile
cottage = public loo (particularly with reference to cottaging)
cottaging = having or looking for sex in a cottage
crimper = hairdresser
dish = an attractive male; buttocks
dizzy = scatterbrained
dolly = pretty, nice, pleasant
drag = clothes, esp. women’s clothes
ecaf = face (backslang)
eek = face (abbreviation of ecaf)
ends = hair
esong = nose
fantabulosa = wonderful
feele = child
fruit = queen
gelt = money
glossies = magazines
handbag money
hoofer = dancer
jarry = food, also mangarie
kaffies = trousers
khazi = toilet, also spelt carsey
lallies = legs
latty room, = house or flat
lills = hands
lilly = police (Lilly Law)
luppers = fingers
mangarie = food, also jarry
measures = money
meese = plain, ugly (from Yiddish)
meshigener = nutty, crazy, mental
metzas = money
mince = walk (affectedly)
naff bad, = drab (from Not Available For Fucking)
nanti = not, no
national handbag = dole
nishta = nothing, no
oglefakes = glasses
ogles = eyes
omi = man
omi-polone = effeminate man, or homosexual
onk = nose
orbs = eyes
palare pipe = telephone
palliass = back (as in cpart of body)
park = give
plate = feet; to fellate
polari = chat, talk
polone w= oman
pots = teeth
riah/riha = hair
riah shusher = hairdresser
scarper = to run off (from Italian scappare, to escape)
scotch = leg
sharpy = policeman
shush = steal (from client)
shush = bag holdall
shyker/shyckle = wig
slap = makeup
strillers = piano
thews = thighs
trade = sex
troll = to walk about (esp. looking for trade)
vada/varda = see
willets = breasts

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