Polari: Rediscovering a queer language

Once the secret language of gay men, in a time when their very existence was persecuted, we explore the debt the world owes to Polari. 

“Oooh, vada the lally-drags on that omee. Very sheesh!” A sentence that once would have adorned many a casual conversation in the 1950s amongst gay men. Their subject: an attractive young man wearing eye-catching trousers. But you’d only know this if you spoke Polari, the secret slang language used amongst the LGBTQ+ community to avoid persecution.

Though Polari no longer adorns the bars and "molly houses" of the west end, LGBT History Month gives us the opportunity to look back on, and celebrate this particular aspect of LGBTQ+ culture. To learn more, we spoke with Ted Mentele, the english editor at leading language learning app Babbel.

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Where did Polari come from?

Soho Square, London
Soho Square, London

It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when or where Polari began, but at its base, Polari is an organic conglomeration of subcultural slangs and criminal cants that preceded it.

According to some sources, such as Matt Houlbrook’s book, Queer London, Polari was spoken in "molly houses" as far back as the late 1800s. Professor Paul Baker, of Lancaster University, however, sees Polari as coming into its heyday in the 1920s, reaching the peak of its popularity in the 40s and 50s, later declining in the late 60s as a result of civil rights movements within the LGBTQ+ community, such as the Stonewall riots of 1969, resulting in the easing of laws and restrictions against homosexuality.

"Polari was a crucial building block of queer culture"

Polari was popularised amongst the LGBTQ+ community because, as a secret language, it allowed gay men to talk about sex openly without persecution or the risk of prosecution. Consequently, it is also a crucial building block of queer culture. Fun, sexy and humoured, Polari was a language of gossip and entertainment. Although homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967, underground queer culture thrived in the late 19th and 20th centuries—and much of that was thanks to Polari.

Polari was simultaneously an identifier and a form of protection—in many ways it wasn’t just a dialect, but a crystallisation of the culture itself. Through Polari, you could talk openly with friends about relationships, who you knew, who you fancied, your sex life, who was available and more importantly, who wasn’t. It allowed you to bond openly without fear of persecution, offering the community an invisible safety cloak.

 

Polari across the UK

Manchester gay scene
Manchester, UK

While Polari was commonplace in most of the big cities in the UK up until the late 1960s, there are few written recordings of regional uses of the language, as it was so hidden. However, words like bona and vada find their origin in Polari and are still in use today across different areas of the UK, such as Manchester.

Additionally, now and then we still see little hat tips to the hidden language being made in common culture. One example came when British rock legend, Morrissey, titled his 1990 compilation album, Bona Drag, which is Polari for "nice outfit". The album also featured the single Piccadilly Palare, which is named after a Polari description of male prostitution.

 

Where is Polari now, and what has its influence been?

Pride London
London's Pride festival

In 1967, homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK, which was representative of the free-loving, liberal decades to come. This movement lifted the veil on the LGBTQ+ community and, therefore, led to a movement away from the secretive language of Polari: its purpose had been served. The LGBTQ+ community wanted liberation, to live their lives openly, and to no longer hide who they are or who they love.

As with many languages, Polari died out simply because people stopped speaking it. By the 90s, when Baker was conducting his research, his interviewees knew Polari but no longer used it day-to-day. And by the noughties, Polari had all but disappeared from the queer scene.

 

Why is it so important to commemorate the influence of Polari?

gay couple

This is a language that is representative of culture personified—it offers a window into a vital chapter of queer history and is therefore crucial in terms of LGBTQ+ heritage.

As the LGBTQ+ community grows, it’s important we understand prior history, and what’s come before, learning and gaining strength from cultures of the past, as well as respecting those who defied oppression before us. But more than that, LGBTQ+ culture owes so much to Polari because it gave us so many of the words we use to talk about ourselves: butch, camp, and even drag queen got their queer-specific meanings from Polari.

If Polari proves nothing else, it’s that we all need language to define and create ourselves, to give us a space in which to exist, terms to identify with, and a code with which to find others like us. Polari provided us with the building blocks of a community.

 

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