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Polari: The Campy, Secret Tongue of Queer Love and Survival

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Article by: Miss Honey, @spinning_again

In the shadows of mid-20th century Britain, amidst a society rife with discrimination and persecution against LGBTQIA+ individuals, a special linguistic phenomenon emerged: a secret code, a hidden tongue, a beacon of unity. This lexicon, known as Polari, became the lifeline of a resilient community fighting for its right to exist, love, and thrive in a world that often sought to silence its voice. Born from the need to communicate discreetly and protect one another from harm, Polari wove together elements of English, Italian, Yiddish, Romani, the flamboyant lexicon of the theatre and circus, and more. Used largely by the queer community, this language transcended mere words to become a powerful symbol of LGBTQIA+ resistance and camaraderie, leaving an indelible mark on the cultural tapestry of the queer experience.

In short, Polari is a secret slang language that was commonly used by the queer community throughout the 1900s. This vernacular served as a way for those within the community to identify one another and to discuss matters that were often taboo or illicit in a society that was less accepting of sexual and gender diversity. It is difficult to pinpoint when exactly this language specifically came about, but it was most frequently used throughout the 1930s-1970s by marginalized communities in the United Kingdom. While Polari contains as many as 500 terms, there were roughly 20 core words familiar to most speakers. It would have been common to overhear these terms and phrases in private gay drinking establishments, the theatre, and the London Underground. In these locations and more, the language allowed people to speak freely in a way that was true to who they were while connecting them with those who were similar.  

Today, while there is still an interest in and appreciation for Polari, the chances of hearing someone speak it are slim. Polari’s decline in usage can be attributed to several factors. One significant reason is the changing societal attitudes towards LGBTQIA+ individuals and their rights. As queer acceptance and visibility increased over the following decades, the need for a secret language like Polari gradually diminished. The Stonewall riot in 1969 marked a turning point in the LGBTQIA+ rights movement, leading to greater openness and acceptance. Additionally, advancements in legal protections, including the decriminalization of homosexuality in many countries, reduced the exigency for secrecy. Moreover, as more people outside of the queer community became aware of Polari and its meaning, its status as a closely guarded secret eroded. However, while Polari is no longer widely used, it remains an important historical and cultural artifact, showing the resilience and creativity of marginalized communities during a time of discrimination and prejudice.

In tracing the history of Polari, we uncover not just a secret language but a testament to the strength and ingenuity of the LGBTQIA+ community in the face of adversity. While Polari may have faded into the annals of history as a language of secrecy, it leaves behind a lasting legacy. It reminds us of the journey from shadows to acceptance, from coded whispers to open dialogue. Polari is a bridge that connects us to a time when authenticity was an act of rebellion, and it continues to inspire us to celebrate our differences, embrace our identities, and stand together in solidarity. As we reflect on the colorful lexicon and the stories it carries, we honor the LGBTQIA+ pioneers who found strength in words, resilience in camaraderie, and the courage to be their true selves.

A Glossary of Polari Terms:

    • Ajax – Nearby.
    • Alamo – Hot for you.
    • Aunt Nell – Listen.
    • Aunt Nells – Ears.
    • Barney – Fight.
    • Bibi – Bisexual.
    • Bitch – Effeminate or passive gay man.
    • Bijou – Small.
    • Blue – Homosexual.
    • Bona – Good.
    • Bona Nochy – Goodnight.
    • Bonaroo – Wonderful.
    • Butch – Masculine Lesbian.
    • Cackle – Talk/gossip.
    • Camp – Effeminate (possibly from Italian campare, “exaggerate, make stand out”,  or KAMP, Known As Male Prostitute).
    • Capello/Capella – Hat.
    • Cats – Trousers.
    • Charpering Omi – Policeman.
    • Clobber – Clothes.
    • Cove – Friend.
    • Crimper – Hairdresser.
    • Dally – Sweet, kind.
    • Dilly Boy – A male prostitute.
    • Dish – An attractive male.
    • Dizzy – Scatterbrained.
    • Dolly – Pretty, nice, pleasant.
    • Dona – Woman.
    • Doss – Bed.
    • Drag – Clothes, esp. women’s clothes.
  • Eek – Face.
    • Ends – Hair.
    • Esong – Nose.
    • Fantabulosa – Wonderful.
    • Fruit – Queen/gay man.
    • Glossies – Magazines.
    • HP (Homy Polone) – Effeminate gay man.
    • Jubes – Breasts.
    • Kaffies – Trousers.
    • Lallies – Legs.
    • Lallie Tappers – Feet.
    • Latty – Room, house, or flat.
    • Lilly – Police (Lilly Law).
    • Luppers – Fingers.
    • Martinis – Hands.
    • Measures – Money.
    • Meese – Plain, ugly (From Yiddish).
    • Mince – Walk (affectedly).
    • Naff – Bad, dull, heterosexual (from “Not Available For Fucking”).
    • Nanti – Not, no.
  • No Flies – Honestly.
    • Ogle – Look.
    • Oglefakes – Glasses.
    • Ogles – Eyes.
    • Omi – Man.
  • Sharda – Shame.
  • Sharpy Polone – Policewoman.
  • Shush – Steal (from a client).
  • Shush Bag – Holdall.
  • Shyker – Wig.
  • Slap – Makeup.
  • So – Homosexual (e.g. “Is he ‘so’?”).
  • Strillers – Piano.
  • Trade – Sex.
  • Troll – To walk about (esp. looking for trade).
  • Vada/Varda – See.
  • Vera (Lynn) – Gin.
  • Vogueress – Female smoker.
  • Willets – Breasts.

Zhooshy – Show.

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