Polari: A secret language.


The need for a secret language…




The United Kingdom is known to be one of the world leaders of equal rights, however like most countries it hasn’t always been so. The last men hanged for the act of buggery was in 1835. In 1885 the law was changed again and was designed to prosecute any man participating in ‘Gross Indecency’. Until the 1885 act was debunked in 1967 many men received prison sentences of up to two years, or other extreme measures such as chemical castration, highlighted in the 2015 Alan Turing’s film The Imitation Game.

As feely homies, we would zhoosh our riahs, powder our eeks, climb into our bona new drag, and our gildy batts and troll off to some bona bijou bar.

As we are young men, we would comb our hair, powder our faces, wear our best new clothes, and our fancy shoes, and walk to some good little bar.

What is a Lexicon language?

lexiconIn order to disguise the gay communities’ conversation’s to prevent mistreatment and / or prosecution over centuries, a lexicon language was formed. This is a language that forms a bridge between the main language and a fraction group, in this instance it was English and the ‘gay community’.

This language, often used for gossip filled a need for gay and bisexual men to secretly communicate with each other in a safe manner and so Polari emerged.

Polone – Woman 
Pots – Teeth 
 Riah – Hair 
Riah shusher – Hairdresser

bag – Bag or Holdall
 Slap – Makeup 
 Thews – Thighs 


Meaning of the name…


Although there are several ways of spelling POLARI, this the most common. Other variants included Parlare, Parlary, Palare, Palarie. Parlare is Italian for “‘to talk”’.


Omnes and palones of the jury, vada well at the eek of the poor omee standin’ before you, his lallies trembling.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, look carefully at the face of the poor man who stands in front of you – his legs are trembling.




Born out of other languages….

Its origins came from several other languages including Italian, Romani, London Slang and Cant (a slang thieves used) and later traces of Yiddish slipped into the dialogue, proving its influences came from a range of minority sources in the UK and beyond.



Charpering omi – Policeman
Crimper – Hairdresser
Dizzy – Scatty
Dolly – Pretty

Butch – Masculine
Camp – Effeminate

Capello – Hat 




Used in certain professions…

It was used by actors, prominently historically a gay profession, circus performers, prostitutes and even sailors, who contributed their own words into the language. It wasn’t totally an exclusive gay language, straight but homo-friendly co-workers and friends also picked up words of Polari.

Some historians point out how certain words have been confused with Polari, but really come from other sources of slang.

 Nantee palari before the gajo cull.

Don’t speak Polari before that outsider


Dockers at work (3)

A language that travelled the country…

Polari started in London but moved mostly into larger cities with ports and /or high populations of such professions and sub-cultures. Some areas of London even had its their own dialect of Polari.

Fruit – Old queen
Gay – Good as you
Gelt – Money
Glossies – Magazines


Earth_Globe.pngA language that travelled the world…

Even though Polari origins are British it travelled across the globe, taken  by immigrants, travellers and sailors to the British Empire countries of the day were homosexuality was still illegal until much later than the 1960’s in some  cases still today.


Kaffies – Trousers
Lallies – Legs
Latty – House
Lills – Hands



scarper-logo-webEvolved into parts of mainstream English…

Later when Polari became even more popular, recognisable words filtered through into the mainstream English language, some words still exist today and are used in English, widespread through society, as well as others solely in the LGBT community.

Luppers – Fingers
Mangarie – Food
Mince  – A camp walk
Naff – Awful (Not-available-for-f******)



The rise and decline….


Polari evolved over centuries, it was most popular between the 1930’s and the 1970’s. In the early 1970’s as it was no longer needed for its original purpose of protection, due to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, it almost died entirely. Before it did many people thought the language was disrespectful, as it was often used in idol gossip and talk of sexual nature. It is thought as it could easily be translated by others also led to its decline.


Nanti – None, no 
National handbag – Dole money

Oglefakes – Glasses

Betty bracelet – Policewoman
Bijou – Small
Bod – Body
Bold – Daring




Used for recognition…

Because of its nature being a secret lexicon language it was hardly ever written down and so was mostly spoken word, having said that in the 1960’s places such as cafes and hairdressers that traditionally would have homosexual owners, used words from the language for their business names, in order to make them recognisable as gay friendly establishments. To this day there are still establishments in cities such as London and Brighton, that have high LGBT communities with Polari names.


Bona – Good, Nice

Ogles – Eyes
Omi – Man
Omipolone – Camp man

Troll – To go walking
 Varda – See, To look


julian & sandy2.jpg

Some words in Polari are used for comic effect and entertainment…

Polari got so popular that two radio performers in the 1960’s had a comedy sketch on their show called Julian and Sandy (played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams).  It was used in TV shows such as Doctor Who. The English singer and gay rights activist, Morrissey, an English singer and  equal rights activist used it in his music.

Carsey – Toilet
Charper – To Search

 Lilly Law – Police



An endangered language…..

In 2010 Cambridge University registered Polari has an endangered language. Recently due to academic interest it is gaining popularity on the internet, and is now even being recorded on websites, slowly being pieced together again,  but this time not being used for communication but for history.


Esong – Nose
Fantabulosa -Wonderful 

Palliass – Back or rear
Polari – Talk , to chat





Used for survival…

Polari is a great example of how languages can develop in order for survival of the users in a form of a secret language; it also amalgamated and influenced parts of the English language in some form or another. Nowadays it still exists just like the castles on the English countryside but within our language as a reminder of our heritage and the struggles of yesteryear.

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