You might spot a word or two of it in the odd bit of pop culture these days—a Todd Haynes movie, a Morrissey song—usually included as a fun if arcane historical reference. But for British gay men (and sometimes women) in the first half of the 20th century, Polari wasn’t just a cute jargon: It was a secret code, one that was absolutely necessary.
Being gay in Britain before about 50 years ago was dangerous business, and even being perceived as gay then could cost you a prison sentence (homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967). In fact, gay culture was discussed so rarely that newspapers would report on gay people who were arrested as being guilty of "gross indecency," since it was considered taboo to even write (or speak) the words "gay" or "homosexual." Gay people therefore needed a way to communicate about their relationships (and gossip) without being understood by eavesdroppers. Polari came about as a form of insider argot, built from many different languages, shifting and changing as it evolved. As language professor Paul Baker of the UK’s Lancaster University writes in his 2002 book Polari—The Lost Language of Gay Men, it was a lingo of "fast put-downs, ironic self-parody and theatrical exaggeration."
Although Polari saw the height of its popularity in the mid-20th century, its roots are much older. A similar argot called Parlyaree had been spoken in markets and fairgrounds at least as early as the 18th century, made up partly of Romany words with selections from thieves’ cant and backslang (words that are spelled and spoken phonemically backwards, such as yob for "boy" or ecaf for "face"). As this lingo grew popular, it picked up pieces of French, Yiddish, Italian, Shelta (spoken by Irish Travellers), London slang, and Cockney rhyming slang, among other tongues. This lexical potpourri was the word on the streets in England, used in fairgrounds as well as circuses, menageries, fish markets, and the British Merchant Navy, among other locales. A version of it was used by criminals and prostitutes, too.
Also incorporated into Polari, by way of the theater association, was the "broken Italian" used by street puppeteers who put on Punch and Judy shows. These colorful, and often violent, puppet productions have origins in 16th century commedia dell’arte theatre and were especially popular in British seaside towns. Examples of "Punch Talk" recorded in the 1850s include munjare (food), bivare (drink), and lente (bed). Even the name Polari is an Anglicization of an Italian word: parlare, "speak." By other accounts, the roots of Polari are at least partially to be found in the lingua franca used by Mediterranean sailors and traders in the Middle Ages and beyond.
It's difficult to say when exactly Polari began, but at some point performers—especially actors, and especially gay actors—began to use a distinct argot to communicate with each other, often for the purpose of gossiping. In addition to being useful for discussing intimate business, Polari could also be used as a shibboleth—if you fancied someone, you could drop a few words into a conversation to see if they picked up what you’d put down, and if not, no harm done. As such, the Polari glossary evolved to include a large number of racy terms, so that people could talk about hooking up without being picked up by the cops (there were lots of euphemisms for the cops, too). Trade is a gay sex partner. A cottage is a public bathroom used for sex. TBH stands for "to be had," which described that a person was sexually available. A kerterver cartzo is a sexually transmitted infection. A dish is a butt, and other words for anatomy include cartes, lallies, pots, and packets.
Speaking of synonyms, an omi in Polari is a man, and a dona is a woman—but she can also be called a palone. An omi-palone, therefore, is an effeminate man, or sometimes just a gay one, while a palone-omi is a lesbian. Omi is sometimes spelled homie too, which might suggest that it’s the origin of the word homie in American urban slang, but it’s not—the American homie comes from "homeboy," a friend from back home.
Polari isn’t easy to research. Because the lingo was ever-changing, there’s no definitive glossary, and there is a wide variety of spellings. Many glossaries of Polari exist, but they’re difficult to verify—and the words included can differ hugely from collection to collection. So anything written authoritatively on the subject should be taken with a grain of salt, including this article. Even the name of the jargon itself is sometimes styled as parlare, in its original Italian form, and you might also see it spelled as palare—as in Morrissey’s 1990 song "Piccadilly Palare"—or perhaps palari, parlary, or palarie.
To complicate things further, some say there were actually two separate mutations of Polari within London: the East End version, which involved more Cockney rhyming slang, and a simplified West End version. Although there was a decently sized overlap between the two, it’s been said that the East End dwellers, who were located near the shore and had exposure to dock workers and sometimes foreign languages, used such complicated lingo that they were able to confuse the West End speakers, whose version of Polari was associated with office workers and theater types.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that Polari started to become more widely known, thanks in large part to the BBC radio comedy program Round the Horne. Among other members of its cast, the show featured characters Julian and Sandy (played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams), Shakespearean actors whose speech was generously peppered with Polari words and phrases. Both Paddick and Williams were familiar with Polari in their real lives and sprinkled improvised phrases into the program on the fly. Round the Horne was unusual in that it was a program on a mainstream station with two main characters who were more or less out of the closet, in a time and place when it was illegal to be gay.
After several years on the air, many of Julian and Sandy’s slang terms had made their way into everyday speech in the United Kingdom, such as vada (to see or look) and bona (good). One term in particular, naff, seems to have stuck firmly in the nation’s minds—and mouths. Although various origins for the term have been given, some sources say it was originally a Polari term that initially may have meant "heterosexual," and then "unavailable for sex," which later became "uncool" or "boring." (By other accounts, it may come from the Italian gnaffa, "a despicable person.")
The perhaps-best-known Polarism, though, is a term you might not know was Polari in the first place. The word drag, referring to women’s clothing when worn by men, comes to you through Polari, possibly stemming from one of various Romany words for skirt, andraka or jendraka (which in turn come from Sanskrit). The use of the word drag was also popularized by Round the Horne. There’s another Polari word that survives in today’s parlance as well, with a fairly recent renaissance: Carson Kressley from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy likes to throw in a dash of Polari when he tells someone to zhoosh up his hair (to style or to tidy up).
By the 1970s, Polari began to fall out of use; some considered it degrading, as it was often used to gossip about sexual exploits. Being gay was also no longer criminal, so the need for a private slang dissipated. The decline of Polari was rapid: In his book, Baker writes that "many gay men under the age of thirty have never heard of it."
Polari is tenacious, though, and it still shows up in mainstream pop culture here and there, such as in some of the lyrics to "Girl Loves Me" on David Bowie’s 2016 swansong album, Blackstar. The year prior, filmmaking duo Brian Fairbairn and Karl Eccleston wrote and directed Putting on the Dish, a short film wherein the characters converse entirely in Polari, and in 2012, the entire King James Bible was translated into Polari by computer scientist Tim Greening-Jackson as part of a Manchester, England-based project called Polari Mission (the project also included an app with a downloadable dictionary).
Although intentionally shrouded in mystery during most of its development, this colorful lingo has a salacious appeal that’s kept it from vanishing completely—at least if you know where to vada.
A partial glossary of Polari:
ajax = nearby or next to
batt = shoe
bijou = small
Billingsgate = foul language (named after a London fish market where profanity was often heard)
bona to vada = nice to see you
B-flat omi = fat man
camp = excessive or showy or affecting mannerisms of the opposite sex
charper = to search (hence charpering omi = policeman)
dolly = nice or pleasant
cod = naff, vile
dry martini = left hand
feely = child, hence feely omi = a young man, usually an underaged man
fungus = old man
lally = leg
lattie = room, house, flat
lattie on water = ship
lattie on wheels = taxi
ling grappling = sex
meese = plain, ugly
naff = awful, drab, uncool
nanti = not, no
orderly daughters = the police (one of many effeminate nicknames for the cops used in order to undermine their authority; others include Hilda Handcuffs and Betty Bracelets)
ogle = eye (hence ogle filters = sunglasses, ogleriah = eyelashes)
riah = hair
riah-zhoosher = hairdresser
sharda! = what a pity!
strillers = piano
stimpcovers = stockings
sweet martini = right hand
tober = road
tosheroon = half a crown/two shillings and sixpence
troll = walk, wander
vadavision = television
vera = gin
walloper = dancer
Numbers 1 through 10 in Polari: una, duey, trey, quater, chinker, sey, setter, otto, nobber, dacha