Do you know how the “secret” gay language came to be? Perhaps you didn’t even know there was such a thing. Nick Dent gives us a potted history of Polari, a language born out of discrimination.
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.“ Nelson Mandela
To call Polari a language may be a bit of a stretch. It is more accurately described as a “cant”: a lexicon deliberately designed to deceive. One in particular is very famous; you’ve probably heard more than a few of its dickey birds in your bottle of beers. Cockney rhyming slang was thought to be used by either traders to communicate without punters knowing what was being said or, perhaps even more tantalisingly, as a thieves’ cant, where being understood could result in arrest.
Polari has likewise been used to avoid arrest by a community of people. It starts as all good stories do, amazingly, at a Punch and Judy show.
Punch and Judy were brought over by Italian immigrants and, as a result, Polari has strong romantic roots. Common words, such as bona meaning “good” (buono in Italian) or vada meaning to “look” or “see” (vedere in Italian), highlight this connection. However, many Punch and Judy performers felt that they were wasted on the seaside and moved into the theatre; the language followed.
Acting, as a profession, has always involved a melting pot of people and has generally been more accepting of minorities than the general population. Thus, Polari started to incorporate loan words from different languages, such as Romany gypsy (moey meaning “face”), Yiddish (schnozzle meaning “nose”) and even cockney rhyming (hampsteads, meaning your pearly white hampstead heath). Over time these evolved to become distinct words in a new dialect.
One minority in particular has often been associated with the performing arts, because they are usually much more welcoming of the homosexual community than the world outside. (Weirdly, there are still no A list Hollywood leading men who are gay – sorry, NPH – a sad irony). This meant that the language was eventually spoken in the gay bars and clubs of London’s West End; gradually the language became associated with London’s gay scene.
For a long time people engaging in homosexual acts in this country were judged by the ecclesiastical courts, threatened with damnation and hellfire for all eternity. It wasn’t put into English law until the Buggery act of 1533, which basically said that anyone who commits buggery will be killed and have their lands passed to the king. This law was eventually changed so the land would be passed on to their children or wife.
This is pretty much how the law stayed until 1861 when the death penalty was abolished and proven homosexuals would instead be locked up in the sole company of men for a number of years. A somewhat questionable curative method. In 1885, having difficulty proving and charging men with Buggery, the authorities were driven instead to prohibit “gross indecency between males”. This was a far easier charge to prove; indeed it was this which led to Oscar Wilde being imprisoned.
This was how the law stayed until 1967, when a law decriminalised homosexual acts between two men over 21 years of age in private (England and Wales). It was still illegal if more than two men were involved; if either was under 21 years old; if the act was done outside of their home; or the deed was done in either Scotland or Northern Ireland. So if two 20 year old men wanted to have sex in a hotel in Aberdeen while their friend watched, they would have to flagrantly disregard the law. Amazingly, it was illegal in Scotland and Northern Ireland until 1980 and 1982 respectively. The age of consent was not changed to match heterosexual sex until 2001.
With the very real fear of death, and latterly jail, it was useful if not essential for homosexual men to be able to communicate then-illegal ideas without being caught. Polari was a way to do just that. Once the practice of homosexuality was legalised in 1967, Polari somewhat lost its usefulness and slowly dropped out of use.
Today it is rarely spoken, but a few words are still recognisable. Naff is a Polari word which originally meant “a non-homosexual” (from not available for f***ing); this later evolved into a more general word meaning “bad”. It was even used by royalty when Princess Anne told reporters to “Naff off!”. Other examples include a palaver, meaning a “hassle” or “fuss”; and drag, meaning “clothes” (commonly known thanks to the popularity of the drag scene).
If you feel a twinge of sadness at not having heard it spoken in all its fluent glory, worry not. Polari’s two most famous speakers can still be heard on Radio 4 Extra. Julian and Sandy (played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams) were out of work actors who often found their various temporary jobs attended by Kenneth Horne in the radio show “Round the Horne”. This ran from 1965-1968, and was broadcast to an estimated 9 million people at its peak.
This was at a time when homosexual acts were illegal, so doing so was very brave. However, some have also suggested that it helped lead to Polari’s downfall: once people who weren’t gay friendly started to hear and understand it, it was no longer useful. It also has its fair share of contemporary criticism, with some saying it’s unnecessarily divisive and even isolates the gay community. Some go so far to say that its overly dramatic (and even camp) tone can reinforce preconceptions about the gay community as a whole.
However, many similar languages exist and are still in use in places where homosexuality is either illegal or culturally unacceptable. These form a part of what is referred to as “lavender linguistics”. Examples from around the world include “bahasa binan” in Indonesia and “swardspeak” in the Philippines. Living up to its reputation as the rainbow nation, South Africa even has two: “IsiNgqumo”, a Bantu based language derived from Zulu; and “Gayle”, which is derived from Afrikaans.
For gay men (and, to a lesser extent, women) around the world and throughout history these dialects offer a way to stay safe and became a proud part of the culture. People may now say it’s divisive and that times have moved on, but it originates from a time when the gay community didn’t have much. But they did have Polari.
And as Nelson Mandela said “If you parlare to an omee in a lingo he parlares, that goes to his loaf. If you parlare to an omee-palone in Polari, that goes to his strawberry.”
Nick is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.