There was a lot at stake for the gay men who used the language of Polari in the early 20th century. Homosexuality was against the law. Being outed was often a matter of life and death. However, using slang, borrowed words, and foreign languages, the LGBT+ community created a “secret language” in order to communicate with each other safely, and Polari was born.
How bona to vada your dolly old eek! But before we start talking about Polari, let’s lay down some definitions.
First: language is defined as “the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community” (Merriam-Webster).
Second is slang, which can be defined as “an informal nonstandard vocabulary composed typically of coinages, arbitrarily changed words, and extravagant, forced, or facetious figures of speech.”
The classification of Polari is difficult; it’s more than slang, but not quite a full language. For instance, one can have a conversation in Polari but one can’t write a book in it. For this reason, some would classify it as– third– a pidgin language, which is “a simplified speech used for communication between people with different languages”. And yet, Polari was used between English speakers in Britain.
This brings us to the reason Polari was created in the first place. It was used by gay men in Great Britain from roughly 1910-1960 so they could talk openly about being gay when homosexuality was considered a crime.
Fourth and finally, one proper term for Polari is “argot”, which is a “language used by a particular type or group of people : an often more or less secret vocabulary and idiom peculiar to a particular group.”
To put it more succinctly: Polari was a secret language.
Many Polari words act as “code words” and have one-to-one translations in English, while others carry completely different connotations or represent previously unnamed concepts. Typically, the Polari user would drop in a Polari word or phrase in casual conversation in order to test for reactions from the listener– it was a subtle way of identifying fellow gay men– and full conversations in Polari also flourished. With Polari, gay men could speak openly in public and avoid suspicion.
Due to Polari’s hodgepodge of origins, the language is composed of many inventions and borrowed words. One example is the word “vada”, meaning “to see”, which comes from the Italian word for “to see”: vardare. In a sentence, “could I vada that?” means “could I see that?”, and “I vada-ed them yesterday” means “I saw them yesterday”.
“Riah” is another Polari word that comes from an established language. This Polari word for “hair” is simply the English word for “hair” spelled backward. Plays on English words were common; “fabulous” became “fantabulosa” in Polari, and “eyes” were “ogles”. However, still other Polari words were total slang inventions- like “lallies” to mean “legs”.
These individual words can be strung together to create a full Polari phrase. One such phrase goes: “How bona to vada your dolly old eek!” In English: “How good to see your dear old face!” This phrase combines words like “bona” and “vada”, clear latinate foreign-language root influence, with invented slang like “dolly” and “eek”. This well-cited phrase is quintessential Polari.
In 2020, the writer Daniel Villarreal used Polari words to piece together inventive sentences as they would have been said in the early 20th century. One such sentence reads: “Everyone thinks that auntie is a total fruit, but her gildy clobber makes me think she’s a duchess”, which Villarreal has translated to mean: “Everyone thinks that older gay man is a total old queen, but his nice clothes make me think he’s a rich gay man.”
Some Polari words have made it into modern English lexicon, especially of the LGBTQ+ community. For instance, “camp” and “butch” are two common descriptors in modern parlance (Polari words that respectively mean exaggerated in affectation; masculine in nature). Although Polari is now little-used as a functional “secret language”, its influence on pop culture and place in history is self-evident.
Though Polari was mostly spoken in the 1900s its history starts much earlier in the 1500s with the Argot of Cant. Cant was spoken by those in the underbelly of Britain. You could hear it on the tongues of thieves, vagabonds and smugglers but also from marganalized groups like the Romani and the Queer Community.
A century later in the 1600s traveling carnivals from Italy started to make appearances in Britain. With them came the pidgin language of Parlyaree and the two languages began to mix.
Later in the 1800s, Cockney Rhyming Slang became popular with the English poor. Yet another language, in addition to words from other languages like Romani, Yiddish, and French were added to the Cant-Parlyaree soup and Polari was born.
However, it did not become synonyms with the Queer Community until the 1910s-1920s. Until this time it was spoken by the entire British underbelly, much like Cant before it. No one is quite sure how Polari became the language of homosexuals. However, many theorize that it was because it was used so often by Drag Queens that the switch happened.
Decline and Legacy
Polari eventually fell into disuse in the later 60’s and 70’s due to changing tastes, dwindling secrecy, and the decriminalization of homosexuality. Many younger members of the gay community began to reject the “camp stereotypes and casual sexism” prevalent in Polari. Polari insults often feminized the subject in order to be derogatory– for instance, the police were referred to as “orderly daughters”. The moral objectors were joined by others who abandoned Polari because of the lack of secrecy. British comedian Kenneth Williams featured two Polari-speaking characters in his popular 60’s radio series, Round the Horne.
Previously, Polari users were so secretive that the language was hardly shared and certainly never spoken on tape; then, it had become public knowledge. But perhaps most crucially, the decriminalization of homosexuality meant that Polari’s original purpose was moot. The language had sprung from persecution and the need for secrecy. The passage of the 1967 Sexual Offenses Act was a legislative and cultural turning point that hastened Polari on its slow decline.
Polari never fully took root in America but a few words such as butch, fish, camp, and zhoozh transferred from Britain to America and have remained in the vernacular of the LGBT community.