What is Polari?

Discover the secret language of gay men.

What is Polari?
Photo by BETZY AROSEMENA / Unsplash

I caught up with history buff Chris Park to talk communication, gay men, and why Polari is a history lesson that we all need to learn.

To someone who’s never really heard of it before, how would you describe Polari?

Polari is a form of slang used mainly by gay men in the UK, in the period shortly after World War Two and before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967.

When did Polari first start to emerge as a language?

It’s hard to be absolutely certain, but Polari seems to have become more widespread in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Polari normally refers to a gay slang which was based on earlier forms - sometimes referred to as Parlyaree or Parlare - almost certainly from the Italian word parlare, to speak. We adopted it and adapted it to suit our needs.

Why was Polari used by gay men?

After the relatively free and easy times of the war - see Quentin Crisp’s memoirs for more on that - there was a crackdown in the early 1950s against homosexuals. Any same-sex activity was criminal at this point and so gay men were very vulnerable not only to pressure from the police but to blackmail if anyone discovered their ‘dirty secret’. Although they weren’t free from discrimination, lesbians were never made criminals in the same way gay men were.

It was a way of talking about things, particularly queer sex and affairs, with little or no danger of nearby straights knowing what you were talking about. It seems also to have been used as a ‘litmus test’. You could drop a word or two into a conversation with a stranger to see how he reacted.

At the time that Polari was being used, how would you learn Polari?

There was nothing like a dictionary, you learned it from older gay men in one of the more sympathetic pubs or clubs, and by using it.

I’ve cobbled together a dictionary from my researches. Also, Paul Baker, a professor of linguistics at Lancaster University, wrote Fantabulosa in 2002, which is basically a dictionary of Polari plus a dictionary of gay slang.

When did the use of Polari start to fade out?

It seems to have gone out of use not long after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. There seem to have been a number of contributing factors.

The Sexual Offences Act 1967 made us somewhat less vulnerable to blackmail and social disapproval. However, that didn’t mean there was no homophobia.

Between 1965–1968, the radio show Round the Horne included sketches featuring the characters Julian and Sandy. They were ‘resting actors’ who took on different odd jobs each week. They were also clearly, stereotypically gay. The scriptwriters, Barry Took and Marty Feldman, and the actors, Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams, used Polari in the sketches to great comic effect. However, that brought Polari to a wider audience and, even though the words were rarely explained, some of them began to become familiar to society at large.

The period from the very end of the 1960s into the 1970s saw the beginnings of the gay rights movement. There are some indications that early activists wanted to move away from the camp stereotype that Polari represents.

Was Polari unique to the UK?

I haven’t uncovered anything quite so structured elsewhere, but there are obviously gay slangs used around the world.

From what I’ve gathered from talking to various people over the years, Polari was mostly used in London and mostly by gay men. However, I have heard that it was used by some women.

At one of our Polari workshops in Manchester, I was told that it was used there too - with some slight variations of meaning. I spoke to an Australian at a conference about four years ago, who told me that the comings and goings of gay men - on ships and cruise liners - between London and Sydney meant that it had been used there as well.

I suspect that it developed originally in London because gay men would have moved there for anonymity. It also seems likely because Polari incorporates elements of ‘theatre speak’, as well as rhyming slang, thieves’ cant, and canal speak, among others.

Is it important that young LGBTQ people learn about Polari as part of our history?

I’m glad it’s no longer needed, but sad that it’s no longer used. Although some words live on in mainstream slang - words such as naff, drag, and clobber.

I do think it’s important to use it as a tool to talk about our history. Polari is a useful hook to talk about lots of things in our LGBTQ past.

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