What is Polari?

Discover the secret language of gay men.

What is Polari?
Photo by BETZY AROSEMENA / Unsplash

Let's recap why Polari is a history lesson that we all need to learn.

What is Polari?

Polari is a form of slang that was used mainly by gay men in the UK.

It was most commonly used 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 was based on earlier forms of slang-based language - sometimes referred to as Parlyaree or Parlare, a term derived from the Italian word parlare, to speak.

Why was Polari used by gay men?

After the relative sense of social liberation that men experienced during World War II, the early 1950s saw a crackdown on gay men in the UK.

Any same-sex activity was criminal at this point. This mean that gay men were highly vulnerable not only to pressure from the police but also to blackmail and persecution.

Polari - a secret language that could only be understood by gay men - became a way of talking about things without the danger of anyone overhearing anything that might be considered compromising.

Conversations in Polari often revolved around sexual encounters and salacious gossip.

Polari was also used as a subtle test of a man's sexuality - if you dropped a few words of Polari into a conversation with someone, you would be able to gauge where there sexual preferences lay.

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

There was nothing like a dictionary that documented the Polari language - you learned it from older gay men and through everyday encounters.

When did the use of Polari start to fade out?

While not directly linked to the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality - which began in 1967 - use of Polari began to diminish in the late-60s.

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 represented.

Was Polari unique to the UK?

Polari was mostly used in London but research indicates that it was also widely understood in Sydney, which was a port frequently used by British ships.

While day-to-day use of Polari is now effectively non-existent, many words that originated through Polari remain as part of our queer vocabulary.

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