Polari

Polari (also seen as 'Palare') is a gay slang language, which has now almost died out. It was more common in the 1960's when gays had more need of a private slang. When I started to research Polari, it was difficult to find any written material about Polari as what little used to exist was out of print. However, in the last few years, more and more people have been finding out about it, and several web sites and magazine articles have been written.

Polari featured heavily in the "Julian and Sandy" sketches on the BBC radio program "Round the Horne" in the late 60s, and this is how a lot of people first heard of Polari. A few words like 'bona' can still be seen in gay publications, used for camp effect. There are even hairdressers in London and Brighton called "Bona Riah".

Polari itself was never clearly defined: an ever-changing collection of slang from various sources including Italian, English (backwards slang, rhyming slang), circus slang, canal-speak, Yiddish and Gypsy languages. It is impossible to tell which slang words are real Polari.

In London, there was a West End dialect, based on theatre-speak, which was posher than the East End dialect, based on canal/boat-speak.

Here is a list of words I have put together from various sources. The core of the words are hopefully "authentic" Polari, but some will be just "any old" slang. Additions welcome.

Word list

ajaxnearby (from adjacent?)
basketthe bulge of male genitals through clothes
battsshoes
bijousmall
bodbody
bolddaring
bonagood
butchmasculine; masculine lesbian
campeffeminate (origin: KAMP = Known As Male Prostitute)
capellohat
carts/cartsopenis
carseytoilet, also spelt khazi
chickenyoung boy
charpersearch
charpering omipoliceman
codnaff, vile
cottagepublic loo (particularly with reference to cottaging)
cottaginghaving or looking for sex in a cottage
crimperhairdresser
dishan attractive male; buttocks
dizzyscatterbrained
dollypretty, nice, pleasant
dragclothes, esp. women's clothes
ecafface (backslang)
eekface (abbreviation of ecaf)
endshair
esongnose
fantabulosawonderful
feelechild
fruitqueen
geltmoney
glossiesmagazines
handbagmoney
hooferdancer
jarryfood, also mangarie
kaffiestrousers
khazitoilet, also spelt carsey
lallieslegs
lattyroom, house or flat
lillshands
lillypolice (Lilly Law)
luppersfingers
mangariefood, also jarry
measuresmoney
meeseplain, ugly (from Yiddish)
meshigenernutty, crazy, mental
metzasmoney
mincewalk (affectedly)
naffbad, drab (from Not Available For Fucking)
nantinot, no
national handbagdole
nishtanothing, no
oglefakesglasses
ogleseyes
omiman
omi-poloneeffeminate man, or homosexual
onknose
orbseyes
palare pipetelephone
palliassback (as in cpart of body)
parkgive
platefeet; to fellate
polarichat, talk
polonewoman
potsteeth
riah/rihahair
riah shusherhairdresser
scarperto run off (from Italian scappare, to escape)
scotchleg
sharpypoliceman
shushsteal (from client)
shush bagholdall
shyker/shycklewig
slapmakeup
strillerspiano
thews = thighs
tradesex
trollto walk about (esp. looking for trade)
vada/vardasee
willetsbreasts

Feedback welcome

Please mail me if you can provide any more words, reference sources or corrections. However, I should warn you: I don't have much time to spend on maintaining this page these days ...

Related web links

Most useful sites

Other sites

Bibliography

Books

"The Queens' Vernacular, A Gay Lexicon" by Bruce Rodgers, (Straight Arrow books 1972, ISBN 0 87932 026 5)
reprinted as
"Gay talk, a (sometimes outrageous) dictionary of gay slang" by Bruce Rodgers, (Paragon 1979, ISBN 0 399 50392 7)
A detailed dictionary of gay slang from all over the world, which describes the origins of words, but doesn't mention Polari much.

"Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men, London, Routledge" by Baker, J. P., (Routledge 2002)

"Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang" by Baker, J. P., (2002)

"Hello Sailor! Seafaring Life for Gay Men 1945-1990." by Baker, J. P. and Stanley, J., (2002)

"A Dictionary of Slang" by Eric Partridge, published by Routledge & Kegan Paul
Has an entry on Parlyaree, describing its origins.

"Broadcasting it : an encyclopaedia of homosexuality in film, radio and TV in the UK, 1923-1993" by Keith Howes (Cassell lesbian and gay studies 1993, ISBN 0 304 32702 6)

"The Margins of the City: Gay Men's Urban Lives", ed. by Stephen Whittle, Ashgate Publishing (1994, ISBN 1-85742-202-3) Contains "Gayspeak, the Linguistic Fringe: Bona Polari, Camp, Queerspeak and Beyond" by Leslie J Cox & Richard J Fay (pp103-127)

"Language in the British Isles" ed. by Peter Trudgill, Cambridge UP (1984) Contains "Shelta and Polari" by Ian Hancock (pp 384-403)

"The Homosexual Society" by R Hauser, published by The Bodley Head (1962)
Has a glossary of about 60 entries of "The private language of a minority - the homosexual society"

"The Bona Book of Julian and Sandy" by Barry Took and Marty Feldman (Robson 1976)

"Round The Horne - The complete and utter history" by Barry Took (Boxtree 1998, ISBN 0 7522 2111 9)

"Impertinent Decorum: Gay Theatrical Manoeuvres" by Ian Lucas (Cassell 1994, ISBN 0304327972)

"A Queer Companion" edited by M.J.Ellison and Charles T. Fosberry (Abson Books 1996, ISBN 0 902920 960)

"Parallel Lives" autobiography by Peter Burton (GMP 1985, ISBN 0907040659)

"The Kenneth Williams Diaries" edited by Russell Davies (Harper Collins 1993, ISBN 0 00 638090 5)

Magazine articles

"Bona Contention" by Paul Baker in "Gay Times" magazine, January 2001 - mentions this page

"Jeffrey" magazine, issue 2, October 1972
A glossary of "Polari, The real Queens' English", about 100 entries

"Gayspeak" by Mary McIntosh, in "Lunch" issue 16, January 1973
Traces the origins of Polari in circus performers' language. (I haven't seen this - could anyone do me a photocopy?)

"The Color Of His Eyes" by Ian Lucas, in "Queerly Phrased" edited by Kira Hall & Anna Livia (OUP 1997)
Traces the origins of Polari in circus performers' language.

Films, TV programmes and songs which include some Polari

Misc

"BBC Radio Collection: Julian & Sandy" double cassette (BBC 1992, ISBN 0-563-40626-7)


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© Chris Denning, last update 26 June 2007

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