Excerpt: Fabulosa!: The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language by Paul Baker

From ‘What is Polari?’:

Polari is playful, quick and clever – it’s a constantly evolving language of fast put-downs, ironic self-parody and theatrical exaggeration. The lexicographer Eric Partridge once referred to Polari as a ‘Cinderella among languages’, but I prefer to think of it as the Ugly Sisters: brash, funny and with all the best lines in the show.

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From ‘How to Polari Bona’:

Polari is about drama and Polari speakers were drama queens par excellence. Another feminine stereotype – gossip – is meat and drink to Polari. Polari was essentially a social language, and many speakers lived in densely packed urban areas and had numerous friends, acquaintances, lovers, one-night-stands, exes, crushes, stalkers, rivals, enemies and frenemies. They also had a perfect recollection not only of all of their current relationships but of the status of the relationships of all of the other people that they knew, and social occasions would be spent updating one another on these relationships in great detail. As a young and introverted man on the gay scene, I often found this volume of gossip to be dizzying and overwhelming. I’d sit in the living rooms of some new friend who’d invited me round and then three or four of his other, more long-standing friends would arrive and there they’d sit all afternoon, drinking cups of tea and talking about all the people they knew, with me a sullen presence in the corner, to the point where I was sure they were simply making up names – nobody could know that many people! There couldn’t be that many people in existence! Gossip is one of a queen’s weapons – you never know when it’ll come in handy, and much of it is, of course, geared towards the possibility of having sex with someone at some later date. Keeping track of who has split up with who, who is rumoured to have been seen down the cottage, who made a clumsy pass at who, whose wig fell off on the dance floor – these are all matters of state importance to Polari speakers.

The large number of words that relate to people indicates the importance of gossip in the Polari speaker’s world. As we’ve seen, the generic term for man, usually a heterosexual man, was omee (also omi or homi), while a woman was a palone (sometimes pronounced to rhyme with omee as paloney, sometimes not). A gay man was named by combining the Polari words for man and woman together into omee-palone, whereas a lesbian was the reverse order – palone-omee. There’s a conflation of gender and sexuality here which from some later perspectives might be seen as problematic – to say that a gay man is literally a man-woman keys into negative stereotypes about gay men as effeminate or women trapped in men’s bodies. This was the general thinking of the time, so it is hardly surprising that these ideas found their way into the Polari mindset. However, many Polari speakers were very camp and a good number were what people might nowadays call gender-creative. They dressed in women’s clothes – either by dragging up as female impersonators, or in a relatively more low-key way, by dyeing hair, wearing a touch of make-up or accessorizing with a colourful scarf. These speakers enjoyed the aspects of their identity that were feminine and felt that they were being true to themselves when they expressed them – they may have looked and sounded like camp stereotypes but most of them didn’t view themselves or people like them negatively. Accordingly, queen keyed in to the imaginary world of Polari speakers as (female) royalty. If you are going to emulate a woman, why not be the most powerful woman in the country?

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Clothing words comprised around 15 per cent of Polari nouns, with again around equal amounts of words to refer to male and female clothing and many of them relating to accessories like jewellery (groinage) and spectacles (ogale fakes) or hats (cappella), wigs (sheitel) and shoes (batts – pronounced bates). Clothing itself was simply drag but could also be clobber. A significant number of Polari verbs refer to sexual acts – charver/charva and its clipped spelling arva refer to penetrative (vaginal or anal) sex, and there are a number of other words which specifically denote oral sex (gamming, blowjob, platingreef, tip the velvet, jarry, nosh), many which are synonymous with the concept of eating. We should note that plate could refer to both feet and oral sex. Drag performer Lee Sutton makesthe following joke in one of her acts, describing how she was an apprentice for a photographer’s assistant:

The first day he took me into the darkroom, just to get the feel of things. The second day he taught me how to touch up and develop. The third day he showed me how to make a good enlargement. We started off with postcard size and ended up with whole plates.

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From ‘A Bad Time to Be Gay’:

Even attending a private drinking club was putting oneself at risk, as such clubs could be raided, resulting in mass arrests. David, interviewed for Summer’s Out, describes what would happen:

The pub was raided. They took your names and addresses. It was a form of harassment in those days. The pub would go quiet for a week or a month, and then people would start drifting back again . . . If you had a height of powder too much on one cheek, you might have missed it as you got ready to go out. The barman would say, ‘Sorry dear, out.’ And you’d have to leave.

John Alcock talked about a collective feeling of panic during the 1950s:

I thought that every policeman coming up to me on the street was going to arrest me. I always looked over my shoulder when I was bringing a gentleman home to entertain, usually a labourer . . . The temperature of the time was quite unpleasant. We thought we were all going to be arrested and there was going to be a big swoop.

And so it was in this climate of state oppression that Polari came into its own. One of my interviewees, John, described how Polari was used ‘specifically as a hidden language’: ‘You would say “Vada the cartes on the omee” because nine out of ten times [heterosexuals] wouldn’t understand what the hell you were talking about.’ And Polari was especially useful for conducting conversations in public spaces, especially on public transport. DJ Jo Purvis described how she ‘could sit on a Tube train or a bus and talk about the person opposite using this Polari which no one could understand except theatrical people’. There was no such thing as a ‘safe space’ in 1950s Britain, but Polari helped to create a kind of symbolic safe space for gay people of the time by allowing them to talk in ways which otherwise would have revealed their sexuality to anyone who was listening. And there was a real danger of this – people in the 1950s could be rather nosy, and Quentin Crisp describes how his neighbours used to look through his windows and then report him to the police.

It is simplistic though to think that at the time people were consciously aware of how speaking Polari was helping them to cope with the oppressive times; this was perhaps more likely to come in hindsight. Drag queen Bette Bourne, interviewed in 2014, recalls:

You never thought, ‘Oh God I’m so oppressed I can’t speak about myself,’ you just did it. You just slipped into it [Polari] without even thinking really . . . It wasn’t like this great terrible thing hanging over me, which eventually . . . we realized yes it was a fucking drag, the whole thing was terrible and awful and made people very secretive and suspicious and wary, very wary, but once you got that together it was fine. You had the equipment . . . Those things are forced upon you. They’re not just invented as a camp joke. They’re practical.

Polari could also be employed as a kind of ‘secret handshake’, enabling recognition of a shared sexuality between two strangers – a careful way of coming out of the closet, or at least of opening the closet door a crack. One of my interviewees described it as a ‘non-giveaway that you were gay’, while Dudley Cave described Polari words as ‘secret passwords. You could identify with other gay people if you thought they might be – you could drop a word in like “camping about” or “I’m going camping, but I’m taking my tent”.’ Such code words would be likely to result in a nonplussed reaction if the hearer wasn’t gay so were a reasonably safe way of revealing one’s identity without being overly explicit, and could be shrugged off as a simple misunderstanding if someone had the wrong quarry.

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From ‘In Conclusion’:

When I finished my PhD thesis I couldn’t have predicted many of the ways that Polari has been reappraised in the following couple of decades, so I’m a little reluctant to make guesses about what the future has in store. At the talks I give I am often asked if it will make a full comeback, if LGBT people will start using it all over again. I am not sure if that will ever happen – it flourished in extremely oppressive conditions and hopefully Britain has seen the last of those days. As part of an expression of a camp gay identity I still think Polari has mileage, though, whether for further political purposes or just as a way of helping people get through a bad day. I recall how I imagined a heavenly chorus of Polari speakers making fun of my anxious bumbling during the first conference talk I gave, and I think everyone ought to have an imaginary bold drag queen or sour-faced omee-palone avatar to provide acid commentary during our moments of high drama. A shared sense of language and history also helps to strengthen the bonds of community – and with the closure of many gay pubs and bars across the country as a result of the gentrification of areas such as Soho, and the fact that people increasingly spend large parts of their social lives online, I feel that the sense of a gay community is a little looser than it once was. Perhaps this is also the effect of equalization – now we can get married, we can assimilate into the mainstream. We are no longer an anti-society, so we don’t need an anti-language. But we should be careful of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Yes, it is good to remember our history, but there can be benefits to examining aspects of history and repurposing the best bits for contemporary times – taking them out of their glass cabinets and giving them a new lease of life.

So there are two things that suggest to me that Polari may not be over yet. First, one of its main features was its ability to adapt, to borrow shamelessly from other language varieties, to change and grow, and to embrace different social groups. The drag queens, the Dilly boys, the dancers and the sea queens – they all made Polari their own and they cut it to fit their own purposes. But nobody ever really ‘owned’ Polari. And it’s still up for grabs. I suspect that this flexibility means that it will continue to be used, although probably in such a way that it continues to change. Second, Polari’s capacity to surprise should not be underestimated. Once my PhD was finished and I decided to cut ties with Polari, I was continually thrown off-centre by the creative energy of people who wanted to do things with it that I would never have considered. I look forward to seeing what a new generation can do with it.

Extracted from Fabulosa!: The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language by Paul Baker (Reaktion Books, hb, £15.99).

Reaktion are generously offering Minor Literature[s] readers a 20% discount off their purchase of Fabulosa! Please use code FABML20 (applicable worldwide; valid until 31 July 2019). 

Paul Baker is Professor of English Language at Lancaster University. He has written 16 books including American and British English (2018) and, with Jo Stanley, Hello Sailor! (2003). He regularly gives talks and workshops about Polari and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Author bio and cover image courtesy of Reaktion Books.