Throughout history, people have used coded language – hiding secrets in plain sight – for self protection. Codes are often invented for purpose, but can also develop of their own accord. Take Polari, spoken by gay men in Britain up to the 1960s. In “Fabulosa!”, Paul Baker explains how the language developed from other forms of slang, and how it was used to obscure then-criminal practice from a frowning public.
Polari’s linguistic father was Thieves’ Cant, with genetic material from Cockney rhyming slang and backslang. Cant, the origin of words like hoodwink, thwack and booze, was associated with the criminal underworld. Like an academic jargon, Cant was somewhere between a technical vocabulary of the trade, equipped to express the finer points of purloinery, and a full-blown dialect, opaque to outsiders. Coppers would be hard pressed to understand a rapid stream of slang, and harder still to use it convincingly themselves, making it difficult to infiltrate groups of ne’er-do-wells undetected. Fluency in the dialect proves the speaker’s years in the community, and in turn their likely sympathy to its worldview. Linguistic obscurity proved similarly useful for Polari users, allowing them to recognise bona omee-palone allies and talk trade without revealing too much to law-enforcing Betty Bracelets.
Beside Cant, Polari’s other dad was Italian. Many of its words are recognisable: “Good” is bona, the numbers begin una, dooey, tray, and the name itself comes from the verb parlare, “to talk”. This could catch people out. Baker recounts the time two friends, speaking Polari in an Italian shoe shop, attempted a sly comment on a salesman’s good looks. The man looked up and said “Grazie”, and the pair ran out embarrassed.
This odd civil partnership of la bella lingua and Cockney (not a dialect usually mentioned for its aesthetics) resulted from a generation of young Italian settlers working as street performers, who mixed with the tolerant theatre industry. Polari thus had theatrics in its genes, too. Its blue-collar speakers generously applied makeup and French interjection (mais oui!) to become queens and duchesses, as much a parody of themselves as of the prudish ruling classes. In full finery, a pride of gays would gather in private Soho clubs and prowl the streets for trade, the drop-ins who were game for a casual charvering.
A significant part of the historical record are the Julian & Sandy characters, whose Polari palavers featured on BBC radio through the mid 60s. Despite simplifying enough to be understood by a mainstream audience, the pair slipped clever and often dirty Polarian innuendo past censors (and indeed past the show’s own writers, as much was ad-lib) to 15 million listeners. Polari left a mark on culture in other ways. Words like naff and tat entered mainstream slang. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an activist group, continues to use the language much as the clergy use Latin, and have even translated a Polari Bible.
A dish fit for a queen
Through language, “Fabulosa!” stories gay men’s culture through the 20th Century. (Correspondingly, though, there is less as to what gay women, who seem largely absent from the Polari-speaking world, were up to. Hotspots such as sailors’ ships being male-only was a large part of their appeal.) Awareness of Polari rose with growing tolerance, especially via Julian & Sandy. It fell together with the last vestiges of the Buggery Act in 1967, obsolescing as young liberationists rejected camp and drag stereotypes.
By the time of Baker’s research in the 90s, Polari’s niche had collapsed and its speakers were endangered. Its covert nature meant relatively few written or audio records remained, and those who had used it remembered overlapping fragments, suggesting that usage varied by time and place. All this makes it impossible to reconstruct Polari exactly as it was spoken. Still, while it is sad to see a language’s germline ending, it is fortunate that this secret code is no longer needed.
“In the beginning Gloria created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was nanti form, and void; and munge was upon the eke of the deep. And the fairy of Gloria trolled upon the eke of the aquas. And Gloria cackled, Let there be sparkle: and there was sparkle. And Gloria vardad the sparkle, that it was bona: and Gloria medzered the sparkle from the munge.”