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A Brief History of Polari, Gay England’s Once-Secret Lingo

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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it in the odd bit of pop culture these days—a Todd Haynes movie, a Morrissey song—usually included as a fun if arcane historical reference.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

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13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone
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Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 85th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. NINA SIMONE WAS HER STAGE NAME.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. SHE HAD HUMBLE BEGINNINGS.


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There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. SHE WAS BOOK SMART...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... WITH DEGREES TO PROVE IT.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. HER CAREER WAS ROOTED IN ACTIVISM.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. ONE OF HER MOST FAMOUS SONGS WAS BANNED.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. SHE NEVER HAD A NUMBER ONE HIT.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. SHE USED HER STYLE TO MAKE A STATEMENT.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. SHE HAD MANY HOMES.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. SHE HAD A FAMOUS INNER CIRCLE.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. YOU CAN STILL VISIT SIMONE IN HER HOMETOWN.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD HER MUSIC IN RECENT HITS.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. HER MUSIC IS STILL BEING PERFORMED.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

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13 Secrets From the Guinness Archives
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Guinness has been a staple in Irish pubs for nearly 260 years. With so much history, it's no surprise that the Guinness Storehouse Archives—which are open to the public—are stuffed with intriguing artifacts that tell some pretty wild stories. Here are a few.

1. THE LEASE TO THE DUBLIN BREWERY WAS INTENDED TO LAST 9000 YEARS.

In 1759, founder Arthur Guinness signed a lease for a four-acre property at St. James’s Gate in Dublin. The lease required a down payment of £100, an annual rent of £45, and a term of 9000 years (not a typo). Such lengthy leases were relatively common back then: “At the time in Ireland, there was a lot of instability to do with land tenure,” explains Fergus Brady, Archives Manager at Guinness. Centuries earlier, the British had begun confiscating land from native Irish in an effort to build plantations, and extra-long leases were a means of avoiding this fate. As Brady explains, “You see these really long leases: 99-year or 999-year leases. It seemed to be a legal custom at the time that they used the number nine.”

2. ARTHUR GUINNESS WAS NOT AFRAID TO DEFEND HIS PROPERTY WITH A PICKAXE.

In 1775, the Dublin Corporation—that is, the city government—demanded that Arthur Guinness pay for the spring water flowing to his brewery. When Guinness argued that he was already paying for water rights through his 9000-year rental agreement, the Dublin Corporation sent a sheriff and a committee to his brewery to cut off the water supply. Guinness was livid. He seized a pickaxe and unleashed a torrent of obscenities so colorful that the Dublin Corporation’s goons eventually retreated.

3. GUINNESS ONCE DEPLOYED FIELD AGENTS TO CATCH COUNTERFEITERS.

Guinness Apology
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

In the 19th century, there was no such thing as brand consistency. Guinness did not bottle its own beer; instead, it shipped the suds in wooden casks to publicans who supplied their own bottles and applied their own personalized labels. Occasionally, these publicans sold fake or adulterated Guinness. To prevent such sales, the company sent special agents called “travellers” into the field to collect beer samples, which it tested in a laboratory. “If a publican was found to be serving adulterated or counterfeit Guinness, they had to give a public apology in their local newspaper—and even the national newspapers,” archivist Jessica Handy says.

4. FOR 21 YEARS, THE COMPANY HIRED A GUY TO TRAVEL THE WORLD AND DRINK BEER.

In 1899, Guinness hired an American ex-brewer named Arthur T. Shand to be a “Guinness World Traveller.” It was arguably the coolest job in the world. For 21 years, Shand traveled the world taste-testing beer. According to Brady, “His job was to travel the world and taste Guinness, say whether it was good or bad, who our bottlers in the market were, who our major competition was, what kind of people were drinking our product.” Shand traveled to Australia and New Zealand, to Southeast Asia and Egypt. “He was sort of a Guinness sommelier,” Brady says.

5. THE COMPANY'S HARP LOGO CAUSED TROUBLE WITH THE IRISH GOVERNMENT.

The Celtic harp—based on the 14th century “Brian Boru Harp” preserved at Trinity College—became a trademarked Guinness logo in 1876. Forty-five years later, when Ireland gained independence from England, the Irish Free State decided to use the same Celtic harp as its official state emblem. This became awkward. Guinness owned the trademark, and the Irish government was forced to search for a workaround. You can find their solution on an Irish Euro coin. Look at the coin, and you’ll notice that the harp’s straight edge faces the right; meanwhile, the harp on a glass of Guinness shows the straight edge facing left [PDF].

6. GUINNESS REPORTEDLY SAVED LIVES ON THE BATTLEFIELD.

The old slogan “Guinness is good for you” sounds like a marketing gimmick, but it was born out of a genuine belief that the beer was, in fact, a restorative tonic. The health claim dates back to 1815, when an ailing cavalry officer wounded at the Battle of Waterloo reportedly credited Guinness for his recovery. For decades, the medical community widely claimed that the dark beer possessed real health benefits—and they weren’t necessarily wrong. “There was little safe drinking water at the time,” Handy says. “But with brewing, consumers knew they were getting a safe beverage.”

7. THE COMPANY CREATED A SPECIAL RECIPE FOR CONVALESCENTS.

A label for Guinness invalid stout
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

From the 1880s to the 1920s, Guinness produced a special “Nourishing Export Stout”—a.k.a. “Invalid Stout”—that contained extra sugars, alcohol, and solids and came in cute one-third pint bottles. “It was very common practice for people to buy a couple bottles and keep them as a tonic, even if it was just a glass or half a glass,” Handy says. In fact, Guinness went as far as asking general practitioners for testimonials attesting to the beer’s medical benefits. According to Brady, “Many of them wrote back and said yes, we prescribe this for various ailments.” One doctor even claimed a pint was “as nourishing as a glass of milk.”

8. DOCTORS REGULARLY PRESCRIBED THE BEER TO NURSING MOTHERS.

From the 1880s to the 1930s, many physicians believed Guinness was an effective galactagogue—that is, a lactation aid. The company sent bottles to hospitals as well as wax cartons of yeast (which supposedly helped skin problems and migraines). Hundreds, possibly thousands, of doctors prescribed the beer for ailments such as influenza, insomnia, and anxiety, David Hughes writes in A Bottle of Guinness Please: The Colourful History of Guinness. According to Brady, the company was sending beer to hospitals as late as the 1970s.

9. THE COMPANY ONCE DROPPED 200,000 MESSAGES-IN-A-BOTTLE INTO THE OCEAN.

A Guinness message in a bottle
The message within every bottle dropped in the Atlantic Ocean in 1959.
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

In 1954, Guinness dumped 50,000 messages-in-a-bottle in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. In 1959, they repeated the stunt again, with 38 ships dropping 150,000 bottles in the Atlantic. The first bottle was discovered in the Azores off Portugal just three months after the initial drop [PDF]. Since then, the bottles have turned up in California, New Zealand, and South Africa. Just last year, a bottle was discovered in Nova Scotia. (If you find one, you just might be offered a trip to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.)

10. THE PERSONNEL FILES IN THE GUINNESS ARCHIVES CONTAIN SOME DOOZIES.

The Guinness corporate archives are open to the public. According to Handy, “Some of the stories you get in there are amazing, because you get accident reports and you get crazy stories of people bouncing on bags of hops outside the brewery." This may sound less surprising considering that, back in the day, Guinness employees were given an allowance of two pints of beer every day [PDF].

11. A GUINNESS SCIENTIST MADE A STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT MARK IN THE FIELD OF STATISTICS.

If you’ve taken a statistics class, you might be familiar with the Student’s t-test or the t-statistic. (It’s a method of working with a small sample size when the standard deviation is unknown.) The t-test was first described by William S. Gosset, a brewer and statistician at Guinness who was attempting to analyze a small sample of malt extract. Gosset’s discovery not only helped Guinness create a more consistent-tasting beer, it would lay the bedrock for one of the most important concepts in statistics: statistical significance.

12. GUINNESS IS SO BIG IN AFRICA, IT LAUNCHED A SUCCESSFUL FEATURE-LENGTH FILM.

Guinness began exporting beer to Africa in 1827. In the 1960s, it opened a brewery in Nigeria—followed by Cameroon and Ghana. Today, there are reportedly more Guinness drinkers in Nigeria than there are in Ireland. “In Ireland, England, and the United States, everybody thinks that Guinness is synonymous with Ireland,” Brady says. “But in Nigeria, there’s a very very low conception of that.” The beer is such a cultural staple that a fictional character who advertised the product named Michael Power—a James Bond-like, crime-fighting journalist—became the star of a feature film in 2003 called Critical Assignment, which was a box office smash. (Of course, there’s some branding built into the script. As Brady explains, “There are definitely scenes where Michael Power is enjoying a pint of Guinness.”)

13. DISPENSING BEER WITH NITROGEN WAS ORIGINALLY CONSIDERED LAUGHABLE.

In the 1950s, Guinness scientist Michael Ash was tasked with solving the “draft problem.” At the time, dispensing a draft pint of Guinness was ridiculously complicated, and the company was losing market share to draft lagers in Britain that could be easily dispensed with CO2. “The stout was too lively to be dispensed with CO2 only,” Brady says. “Ash worked on the problem for four years, working long hours day or night, and became a bit of a recluse apparently. A lot of doubters at the brewery called the project ‘daft Guinness.’” But then Ash attempted dispensing the beer with plain air. It worked. The secret ingredient, Ash discovered, was nitrogen. The air we breathe is 78 percent nitrogen. Today, a Guinness draft contains 75 percent nitrogen. Not only did the discovery make dispensing the beer easier, it created a creamy mouthfeel that’s been the signature of Irish stouts since.

Full disclosure: Guinness paid for the author to attend an International Stout Day festival in 2017, which provided the opportunity to speak to their archivists.

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