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Polari: how the secret language Britain’s gay men used to survive died

Polari: how the secret language Britain’s gay men used to survive died

Polari the secret language gay men use to survive

One of the most impressive features of humanity is our ability to adapt.

The ruling classes tried to stomp out homosexuality for centuries in Britain, deploying everything from oppressive laws and an aggressive police force to society-wide shunning.

Rather than be crushed beneath the weight of this cruelty, London’s gay community in the early 20th century adapted. Not just by creating underground scenes, but by developing a whole other way of communicating: Polari.

Polari was an ingenious tool for survival. The secretive language was passed down from man to man and it’s use a kind of initiation into the gay ‘scene’. Its phrases were bouncy and playful, but indecipherable enough that gay men could insult someone in a cafe, or talk about attractive someone was, without anyone knowing.

What is Polari?

Technically a ‘cant’ – a coded selection of words used by a group to avoid detection by outsiders – its vocabulary is derived from multiple sources. Bits were taken from Italian, some stolen from Cockney rhyming slang, and others lifted from Yiddish and Romani slang.

No one wrote it down; instead the language was passed down from person to person. This meant that variations sprung up across London, with someone in the west speaking something slightly different than someone in the east.

Polari was typically spoken by working class men, using it to rebel against society and express their sexuality.

Middle and, especially, upper-class men were protected somewhat by status and money. For example, when Parliament debated the Sexual Offences Act (1967), Home Secretary Roy Jenkins was able to comment – openly and shamelessly – ‘those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of shame all their lives’, despite having a male lover.

Working class men were not afforded this privilege. So they adapted.

Polari the secret gay language - punch and judy
The cant is similar to that spoken by performers, particularly in Punch and Judy shows | Photo: Pixabay

Its parentage is complex and its origins dark, but the language is playful and fun.  ‘Camp’ is in Polari’s DNA.

Masculine words are dolled up; already seemingly effeminate words are transformed into camp masterpieces. ‘Money’ becomes ‘handbag’; expressions like ‘wonderful’ explode into ‘fantabulous’.

Dr Paul Baker, Professor at Lancaster University and author of upcoming book Fabulosa: The Story of Polari, says that while the cant’s primary use was survival, its playful nature meant it brought groups of gay people together.

‘There was probably more a focus on the secrecy aspect earlier in the 20th century and especially during the more oppressive 1950s.

‘Some conversations took place in public and secrecy was therefore more important, while others would have taken place in private clubs or homes and the need to disguise your language wasn’t really that necessary,’ he told Gay Star News.

‘Although we shouldn’t assume everyone on the scene was super-friendly towards each other. As is ever the case, there will have been rivalries. And real insults, mock-insults and ambiguous insults are part and parcel of the Polari speaker’s repertoire.

‘Bonding could be banter. And banter could mask conflict.’

Gays against the police

Two friends could decide whether someone is ‘naff’ (Not Available For Fucking – originally a word for a straight boy, eventually taken into the modern lexicon and is still used in Britain today) in public. They could even insult another gay person’s ‘onk’ (nose) or ‘ogles’ (eyes). Through these actions, it strengthened the gay in-group dynamic.

Gay identity, instead of shameful, became something that brought people together against a society that hated them.

Perhaps most revolutionary of all was how it was used against authority. The police posed the biggest threat to gay men in the 20th century. Up until the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967, men could face up to life in prison for having sex with another man.

Gay language polari and how it died - pride marches
Polari thrived before the gay liberation movement, when police weren’t forced to protect the right to protest (Pic: Gays Against Fascism, London, 1974) | Photo: LSE Library

Gay and bisexual men were also subject to a lot more violence than their straight counterparts, particularly from the police. In this way, Polari was particularly well-equipped to attack them.

The police were seen as a bastion of masculinity and macho behavior, yet Polari transformed them into non-threatening entities. They were called Lily Law, Betty Bracelets, Orderly Daughters, Hilda Handcuffs.

Not only did this force the police to be spoken about in the same way the rest of society spoke about gay men, it reflects the liberation Polari gave to its speakers.

Paul continues: ‘The Polari speakers didn’t take themselves (or anything) seriously. They made fun of real tragedies like being attacked or arrested – you can’t take the police seriously if you call them Lily Law.

‘It’s not so much that laughing at something bad will stop it from hurting you, but it gives you a way of coping with the hurt.’

Downfall

Britain’s gay and bisexual men eventually stopped speaking Polari. Part of the reason is influence from America, where they traded campness with a stronger attachment to extreme masculinity. However, its true death came when it stopped being effective – or necessary – for survival.

The passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 repealed the ban on same-sex intercourse after years of incredibly hard work from activists.

Polari was no longer needed to avoid police. Despite this, it still would have been a useful tool to avoid detection by a hostile society. Unfortunately, the BBC show Round the Horne blew the language’s cover.

Both of these events were defining moments in the story of gay liberation and both of these pushed Polari over the edge.

Julian and Sandy the death of polari
Photo: BBC

One of the most popular shows on BBC Radio 4, Round the Horne featured two gay characters, Julian and Sandy. The audience wasn’t explicitly told they were gay – the show first aired in 1965, two years before the Sexual Offences Act.

Instead they were given a variety of signifiers: the characters were incredibly camp, they were ‘theater types’, and they spoke in Polari.

Being the two most popular elements of the show meant Polari was thrust into the mainstream. Under the spotlight, it crumbled.

As time moved on, its demise continued as it began to be viewed as old fashioned. A lot of the phrases and words are obviously sexist, while there’s some casual racism (like schvartze as phrase for black people).

In an effort to normalize homosexuality to the rest of society, activists shunned it too. The shine of protection faded and it became a symbol of oppression; words that ghettoized its speakers.

Bringing it back from the dead

The language is not entirely lost. The internet has given people new access to Polari. Thus gay people, keen to keep their history alive, are reclaiming it in interesting ways. One such example is Putting On The Dish – a short film spoken entirely in Polari.

Perhaps its most enduring legacy is the fact we still use these words today. Family homes in London and the eastern counties use words like ‘naff’ every day.

It may have cost Polari its life, but its eventual popularity gave us some of the most enduring slang in the English language.

Dr Paul Baker believes that we should keep the language alive: ‘It’s useful to know how we got to where we are and just how bloody difficult it was really. Our freedoms are so hard-won and so recent – and horrifically, as people in Egypt and Russia are finding out, they are not necessarily for good.

‘The people who spoke Polari were seen as camp, silly and apolitical at the time and they were not really part of the Gay Liberation story. But they just got on with things – they refused to stay at home, they continued going out, taking risks, having sex, dealing with negative attention, having fun on their own terms.

‘And for me their existence is a political act in itself, even if they weren’t carrying placards. They weren’t going and they couldn’t be ignored. Would we have been as bold as them?

‘Incidentally, bold is a Polari word that’s gone by the wayside. Now we’re fierce and sassy. I prefer bold.’

Polari is a piece of history that can live through us. Queer men of all stripes would honor our forebearers’ memory by speaking in their tongue. It might not be as bold an act as theirs, but it certainly would be bona.

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