Polari: A Bluffer’s Guide

Gaz Morris
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Did you know that there are more than 7000 languages in the world today? That’s not even including the many varied dialects and extinct, invented and missing languages – yet, according to the Google endangered languages project, roughly over half of these languages stand to become extinct in the next hundred years.

As a linguophile and partial polyglot, the thought of so many languages entices and excites me slightly, much to my eternal social embarrassment. Still, there I was, having a poke about on the map that displays the endangered languages of the world (including the Ayapaneco language in Mexico, where the last two speakers have fallen out and refuse to speak to one another) and my eyes were inevitably drawn to the UK to see if anything was listed. Amongst Scottish, Irish Gaelic, Cornish, Djernesiais (Guernsey-ese, if you will) and Jèrrais (Jersey-ish) is listed Polari. Polari (for those that aren’t already aware) was the language used as means of clandestine conversation amongst homosexuals to avoid being sussed out at a time when homosexuality was illegal (it was also used in theatres, fish markets and circuses, though for slightly different means). Therefore, in order to disguise their communiqués, gays of the past would speak a separate lingo to keep their business their own.

I don’t know if it’s fair to call Polari a language so much as an advanced dialect – indeed, Wikipedia classifies it as a ‘cant’ (no sniggering at the back, please) or ‘cryptolect’ rather than a language per se. I’d be tempted to agree with this classification, not least because I’m far from an expert in the subject, but also because the grammar and majority of vocabulary in Polari is the same as in standard English. (Linguophobes rejoice: Polari has no extra conjugations or declensions to learn and gerunds are kept to a bare minimum.) It is therefore very easy to pick up whilst retaining its exclusivity in comprehension, and yet fewer and fewer people can speak it with every passing year. Admittedly, we in the UK no longer live in a society where it is necessary to hide one’s sexuality for fear of social or legal reprisal and, in the interests of bipartisan openness, I don’t feel it productive to create a system of ‘us’ and ‘them’. However, I also find the notion of leaving so vital a piece of sub-culture to die abhorrent – if for no other reason than because I love languages (yes, and dialects) so much.

In any case, several Polari words have seeped into the English language over time and I now consider it my delight and privilege to introduce you to them. The odds are that you’ll recognise some or all of them, so widespread are they in their usage. In which cases, I’ve tried to add an extra bit of information in the word’s etymology. The ‘translation’ or context (where necessary) is provided in parentheses after the word:

Bitch (passive gay man/’bottom’): Says it all, really.

Camp (effeminate): Possibly from Italian campare (lit: ‘to make stand out’), referring to the situation of secretly denoting one’s sexual preference.

Cottaging: No translation necessary. The term apparently derives from the appearance of old public lavatories, which stood alone in parks and public places and had twee tiled roofs.

Drag (clothes): In speaking of someone in drag, we utilise the Polari word for clothes (especially women’s clothes).

Fruit (queen): Polari term for a queen.

Khazi/Carsey (toilet): Probably picked up from cockney rhyming slang or military parlance. Apparently from the Zulu word ‘M’khazi’ (latrine). Essential travel language, right there.

Mince (as a verb): I can’t work this one out, though it was presumably a way of advertising oneself non-verbally.

Naff (awful, dull/heterosexual): ‘naff’ could be used either to describe something, or else to indicate a heterosexual man.

Ogle (to look): Now an accepted term for having a good, hard look at someone/something, though probably originating from Low German oegen, ‘eyes’ (like modern German augen).

Vada (to see): Last but by no means least – the word that (probably [Ed: definitely!]) spawned a certain online magazine. Vada differs from Ogle in the sense of saying ‘Bona to vada you’ (nice to see you). Probably from Italian guardare – to look at.

I admit that it’s unlikely that you’d be able to understand much of Polari with the mish-mash of vocab above, though I’d like to bet that you’ve used one or more of these pieces of vocabulary in the very recent past as part of everyday speech. So, next time you describe something as naff, or ogle a fruit, I invite you to join me in giving a perfunctory head-nod to Polari and all of its wonderful words.

About Gaz Morris

Based in and around Manchester, Gaz has studied a BA and MA in various types of history at the University of Manchester. When not embracing his love for all things historical, Gaz can be found indulging his other interests of cooking, travelling and languages to whatever degree his current bank balance permits.

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