A brief history of Polari: the curious after-life of the dead language for gay men

The Polari bible. Joe Richardson, Author provided

In early February, the Church of England College expressed regret that in an evening liturgy in Cambridge, God was referred to as the Duchess. The service had been advertised as a Polari evening prayer in anticipation of LGBT History Month, and was described as a liturgical experiment. So what was Polari and how did it end up in an evening prayer?

Polari is a secret language, which has now largely fallen out of use, but was historically spoken by gay men and female impersonators. My research has tracked how it grew out of the world of entertainment, stretching back from West End theatres, through to 19th-century music halls and beyond that to travelling entertainers and market-stall holders.

It developed from an earlier form of language called Parlyaree which had roots in Italian and rudimentary forms of language used for communication by sailors around the Mediterranean. Also associated with travellers, buskers, beggars and prostitutes, it found its way into Britain, especially London and port cities, and gradually became used by gay men and female impersonators, especially during the first half of the 20th century.

Polari itself had Parlyaree as a base, but once in Britain was supplemented with a wealth of slang terminology from different sources, including Cockney Rhyming Slang, backslang (pronouncing a word as if it was spelt backwards), French, Yiddish and American airforce slang.

In a period when homosexuality was illegal and heavily stigmatised, it was useful as a means of conducting conversations in public spaces, which would have alerted others to your sexuality. Many of the words allowed speakers to gossip about mutual friends or to critique the appearance of people who were in the immediate vicinity.

Vada the naff strides on the omee ajax” meant look at the awful trousers on the man nearby. Inserting a Polari word – such as bona (good) or palone (woman) – into a sentence could act as a coded way of identifying other people who might be gay. The language itself, full of camp, irony, innuendo and sarcasm, also helped its speakers to form a resilient worldview in the face of arrest, blackmail and physical violence.

Polari speakers “christened” themselves with camp names like Scotch Flo or Diamond Lil, affording themselves alternative identities that reclaimed the representations of them as effeminate in positive ways.

Surplus to requirements

In the 1990s, I based my doctoral thesis around the study of Polari, examining its varied history and complicated etymology, the ways that it resembled a language, its social functions and the reasons for its eventual decline. I interviewed speakers of the language and analysed texts, including scripts of the 1960s comedy radio series Round the Horne, which had a regular sketch voiced by Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick, who played Polari-speaking actors.

The version of Polari that was used in Round the Horne was necessarily simplified and toned down for the British public, and by the 1960s, there was a feeling that Polari had already overstayed its welcome. Round the Horne spoiled the secret, rendering the language less attractive to its speakers. Meanwhile the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 was round the corner, making it less necessary for a secret lingo in any case.

Some younger gay men were more interested in concepts like gay pride, gay liberation and coming out and viewed Polari as a naff byproduct of a more repressive time. In the 1970s, in an early gay magazine called Lunch, activists branded Polari as ghettoising and it gradually became surplus to requirements. When I carried out a survey of 800 gay men in the year 2000, about half the respondents had never heard of it.

Renewed interest

While few gay men today actively use Polari, in recent years it has gained a kind of latent respectability as an historic language – similar to the way Latin is seen by the Catholic faith. From a political standpoint, Polari is now recognised as historically important, an example of the perseverance of a reviled group of people who risked arrest and attack just for being true to who they were.

In 2012 a group of Manchester-based artists used Polari to highlight the lack of LGBT inclusivity in education. They created an exam in LGBT studies, getting volunteers to sit it under strict exam conditions. The language portion of the exam was about Polari.

Another group of activists called the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence created a Polari Bible, running a Polari wordlist through a computer program on an English version of the Bible. The Bible was bound in leather and displayed in a glass case at the John Rylands Library in Manchester. This was not to mock religion but to highlight how religious practices are filtered through different cultures and societies, and that despite not always being treated well by mainstream religions, there should still be space for gay people to engage with religion.

In 2012, I participated in a group effort to carry out the longest ever Polari Bible reading which took place in a Manchester Art gallery. In a nice touch of high camp we had to wear white gloves while touching the Bible, to ensure the oils from our fingers didn’t ruin the paper. We took turns reading lines such as: “And the rib, which the Duchess Gloria had lelled from homie, made she a palone, and brought her unto the homie.” Translation: “And the rib which God had taken from man was made into a woman and brought to the man.”

The Polari Evensong at Cambridge, carried out by trainee priests, however, took place in a more official context and provoked a range of conflicting opinion. Some people think it is hilarious, some are concerned about Church of England rules being broken and disrespect for religious tradition, while others think that God should be prayed to in any language and that the Evensong was perfectly valid. As someone who has spent 20 years documenting the rise and fall of Polari, I find it fascinating that even now, it is finding new ways to cause controversy. Never has a dead language had such an interesting afterlife.