A Brief History of Polari

In the beginning Gloria created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was nanti form, and void; and munge was upon the eke of the deep. And the Fairy of Gloria trolled upon the eke of the aquas.

And Gloria cackled, Let there be sparkle: and there was sparkle.

The Polari Bible

You need to imagine that being read in a splendid, Gothic cathedral, by a sister of the Order of Perpetual Indulgence.

Today I headed into Bristol for an Out Stories Bristol talk on the history of Polari, the secret language most famous for its use in gay subculture in the early 20th Century. The talk was given by Jez Dolan of the Polari Mission in Manchester. A fantabulosa time was had by all.

Historically Polari can be traced back to the Thieves’ Cant of 17th Century England. It also has inputs from a wide range of sources including theatrical slang, Cockney rhyming slang, the Lingua Franca used by sailors to communicate around the world, Romany language, circus slang and probably a bunch of other things as well. It is more of a dialect than a language, with aspects of a substitution cypher. Many of its words are standard English, and some items it has many different words for due to the multiple sources. Studying it must be rather hard linguistically, but huge fun otherwise.

By the time of the 19th Century Molly Houses some aspects of Polari were already well established. Male homosexuality had been illegal in England since 1533, and was punishable by death up until 1861, so there was an inevitable interaction between the gay subculture and the criminal underworld.

In the early 20th Century, Polari was well established as a means of recognition and communication within gay society, but after WWII gay life began to become more mainstream. In particular the radio comedy show, Round the Horne, featured two characters called Julian & Sandy (voiced by Hugh Paddick & Kenneth Williams) who were fairly camp and spoke a lot in Polari. The show as mainly written by Barry Took and Marty Feldman, who were straight, but Paddick and Williams contributed material and, because of the way Polari re-purposes common English words, they were able to insert some decidedly flithy jokes. Jez told us that Took was horrified when Polari researchers interviewed him about the show and explained what some of the jokes meant.

Because the BBC audience was now learning Polari words, it because less useful as a secret language. Also the rise of the gay rights movement led to pressure on gay communities to behave less differently. The Gay Liberation Front, being full of right-on Marxists, probably didn’t care, but the far more conservative Campaign for Homosexual Equality was very down on anything camp, including Polari.

Meanwhile many words from Polari have found their way into common usage, though some have changed meaning. “Drag” was originally a Polari word for women’s clothing. “Naff”, which now means simply rubbish or useless, was originally a term of abuse for straight people, one possible derivation of which is an acronym, Not Available For Fucking. (And that’s got me banned by the UK’s Net Nanny system, I guess, if I wasn’t already.)

Nowadays, with gender-conformity becoming less important once more, it is possible that Polari will make a comeback, if only as a fun thing to do. Certainly the Polari Bible (quoted above) appears to have been intended in that vein (and is apparently viewed fondly by gay Christians).

Polari has also found its way into other areas of life. I was able to add a few factoids to the discussion. Suzanne Barbieri told me on Twitter that when she trained as a hairdresser she was taught Polari by the other women so that they could talk behind customers’ backs. In Grant Morrison’s 2009 Batman & Robin it is revealed that Dick Grayson is fluent in Polari. Of course it had been long established that Dick came from a circus family, so he has a reason for knowing the language, but I suspect that Morrison was having a bit of a joke there. (Thanks to Tade Thompson for the tip off on that one.) And, of course, Ian McDonald uses Polari as the language of the Airish, the airship crews from his YA science fiction series, Everness.

It was a highly entertaining talk, and if you have an LGBT group of any sort in the UK looking for speakers I recommend you ask Jez to come and perform for you. In the meantime, here are Julian & Sandy to entertain you.

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2 Responses to A Brief History of Polari

  1. It pops up in the Doctor Who story “Carnival of Monsters” too. IIRC, the DVD text commentary said the bit with Polari was added at the request of the actor playing the carnival showman, who knew some Polari.

    • Cheryl says:

      I believe that Leslie Dwyer’s father was in Music Hall, so he’ll have been brought up in a theatrical family.

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