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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it in the odd bit of pop culture these days—a Todd Haynes movie, a Morrissey song—usually included as a fun if arcane historical reference.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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technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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