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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it in the odd bit of pop culture these days—a Todd Haynes movie, a Morrissey song—usually included as a fun if arcane historical reference.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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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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