Riah Shusher graphic showcasing Polari slangBBC

The secret gay language you’ve probably never heard of...

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Lee Dalloway
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Before homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK in 1967, the gay community had to be a lot more discreet when it came to finding a partner, or even just gossiping about a friend. But how could you discuss all things homo-leaning right in the face of a police officer? Enter Polari.

Historically, Polari wasn’t just the chosen tongue of the repressed gay community; it was very much a working class language, too. A fast-paced, quick-witted, innuendo-laden mash-up of Italian, Romani, Yiddish and Cockney rhyming slang dating back to the 18th century, it was originally used by travelling performers, carnival workers, the British Merchant Navy and criminals. By the 1930s, most West End luvvies had claimed the dialect as their own, which naturally led to its use in the many secret gay bars around London. Of course, these were all hidden, underground venues with front door peepholes, where dropping some Polari would usually get you in. It wasn’t until as recently as the 1990s that London had its first gay bar with windows you could see into, fact fans.

Oglefakes means glasses in PolariBBC

Featuring stacks of euphemisms, Polari provided gay men a subtle but liberating way of communicating with others for companionship or sex, or just having a bitch about her next door. It may sound fun, and those who spoke it often revelled in such a secret, seemingly light-hearted dialect. But it was also used out of necessity. It was less than fifty years ago in Britain that engaging in homosexual sex, looking a bit 'gay' or falling in love with the wrong person made you a criminal.

There were no legal protections for gay people as there are now... quite the opposite. If a gay person called the police pre-1960s, the officer in question may have arrested that person, focusing on the homosexuality rather than the crime. This is what happened to Alan Turing, the Enigma codebreaker. In 1952, he reported a break-in and was subsequently convicted of gross indecency for being in a relationship with another man. He was given hormone treatment to reduce his libido, which eventually rendered him impotent, and he committed suicide just two years later. Polari was the only way for the gay community to communicate at a time when authorities were actively seeking to arrest and make examples of high profile homosexuals.

Polari slang for police officers - Betty BraceletBBC

Polari eventually hit the mainstream in the 1960s, via a BBC radio comedy show called Round the Horne. Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams starred as Julian and Sandy, a couple of camp, out-of-work actors who threw around Polari and sexual innuendos with gay abandon. This was pretty much all the media provided in terms of LGBT representation at the time.

Black and white photograph of Round the Horne castBBC

Not only was the language ridiculously camp by the mid-twentieth century, but the word 'camp' itself comes from Polari. If fact, many of the words we use as slang today started out here. Such as 'naff' (rubbish), 'bijou' (small), 'crimper' (hairdresser), 'dizzy' (scatter-brained), 'scarper' (run off), 'dish' (an attractive person), 'bevvy' (drink) and 'slap' (make-up).

Polari for the word trousers is kaffiesBBC

With massive leaps in terms of LGBT equality and visibility, Polari has all but died out. But if someone says “So bona to vada your dolly eek” (“So good to see your pretty face”) or “Can I have a troll around your latty” (Can I have a look around your house) or states “Bona riah” (You have good hair), at least you'll know what they're talking about. Maybe bringing it back is a nice tribute to those who didn't enjoy as many freedoms as we we do today.