decoding the secret gay language of polari

Polari: what is it, and can you learn it? As it becomes almost obsolete, we look at its significance.

by Tom Rasmussen
05 April 2017, 3:20pm

Trolling is commonplace in 2017. But chances are, you didn't know the word in its contemporary meaning came from a secret gay language. Well, that's the point. This secret gay language — known to those in the know as 'Polari' — was passed orally from gay man to gay man (and sometimes to women), and was intentionally kept under wraps. Its beginnings are recognized around the late 1800s, in the age of Oscar Wilde, (although it's thought certain words sprouted from vernacular dating back to medieval times). Its popular use continued until 1967 — the year homosexuality became partly decriminalized in the U.K.

A great means of protection and inter-community communication, Polari was an important sociolect (a manner of speaking within a certain social group), which allowed the gay community to talk to each other in code. This coded speech helped protect speakers from exposing themselves as gay, from arrest, and from other dangers society posed to homosexuals way back when.

More than that, however, Polari was a sexy, fun, 'shady', catty means of communication that didn't merely serve as a mode of self-protection against the nefarious hands of the law, but as a way to express your sexuality, your flamboyance, and your love for other members of your community. This secret language is much like the gibberish you and your friends learn at school, and taught to only the tightest members in the clique. But Polari was used in a much more salacious context for pick-ups, gossip, and comedy among queens.

Brian and Karl, London based filmmakers, wrote and produced a short film entitled Putting on the Dish in April 2015. "If we pare all of this back, Polari was about us trying to find our voice as filmmakers and falling back onto what is an earlier form of gay identity," they told i-D. "But it's strange how there's just been an explosion of interest around Polari. Once we started looking at the words, it was this world of 'vadering' this and 'trolling' that, and the whole world comes out of Polari. And now we've developed our own lingo, as gay men, for negotiating sexual hookups — much like Polari."

So how do you learn it? Well, you can't really learn 'pure' Polari anymore because to learn a language you need to speak it, and not many do. Paul Baker's Fantabulosa: a dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang is the most extensive glossary of Polari words out there. It features a broad catalogue of terms and their definitions — broader perhaps than the vocabulary of the average speaker from the days of its use, whose word count would sit somewhere between the range of 40-60 words.

But like many slang dialects and important sociolects, Polari wasn't really meant to be learned in isolation. It was passed down from those gays in the know, to those gays being initiated into the gay world. To be taught Polari was a stamp of acceptance, and to know it was to be an insider.

Since its fall into obsolescence, it's questionable whether there's any real point to learning Polari. And what's more, the language has somewhat evolved out of recognition. In many cases, too, popular terms have tipped over into mainstream usage — naff, butch, camp, mince, zhoosh, khazi, scarper, cottaging, bod, beat the face, queen, camp to name a few. These expressions have all become mainstays in the English language, and thus have arguably lost their status as Polari words.

Read: The Hanky Code of the pre-AIDS San Francisco gay community is lovingly documented in Gay Semiotics, by photographer Hal Fischer.

"Certain words came into the mainstream, losing their potency, but just as queer communities have not died out, neither has Polari," Maxim Melton, Polari expert, explains. "The difficulty is in whether we call it 'Polari' or not. If we take Polari simply to mean 'a sociolect used by queer communities to express themselves and communicate,' then undoubtedly we still see slang used in drag bars and online that, to an outsider, would be confusing. Just as certain Polari words became homogenized into common vernacular, so we have seen phrases like 'throwing shade' become utilized by those that are outside the communities it originated."

So the point is that Polari still exists, but not in its traditional form. It exists where queers congregate and use words only queers understand (of course this happens in non-queer communities too, but the language wouldn't be named Polari — that name is ours). It exists where, for reasons of safety and connection, people use terms only they and their circle can use, words which would confuse an outsider and, much like Polari, become the hallmark of acceptance were it to be taught to you.

As well as being secret, Polari at its heart should also be subversive. Oftentimes meanings of words are based in double-entendre, making the outsider to the conversation the butt of the joke without even knowing it.

Whether old-school Polari could be used in a contemporary queer context is another question itself. Because much like the language, the community and the conversations it has have altered somewhat massively. "Used seemingly exclusively by gay men, [Polari] bears the hallmarks of the era, namely racial insensitivity and misogyny," Maxim continues. "As such, if there were to be a heightening of a queer sociolect, it would be indicative of the dialogues present within contemporary queer communities."

So a modern day Polari would look a little more inclusive (hopefully). To develop the language to apply to now, its users would have to work on the intersectionality of the language. So perhaps the point shouldn't be whether we should learn Polari or not, but that as a community still under legal threat in many places, and social threat everywhere, we have developed our own forms of Polari that we should protect, and take pride in.

Perhaps, given forty to sixty years, the common vernacular we use will be printed in a dictionary much like Paul Baker's. Perhaps it will be a glossary of emojis, memes, internet speak, as well as words used by small sects of communities. The internet has undoubtedly thrown open the space to bring words into the mainstream — we've seen it with slay, yaaaas, work, hunty. But perhaps there's a few words we should keep to ourselves; it's these that are the Polari of our times. And I'm not going to write them here.

Thanks to Queer Tours of London, which runs workshops and tours exploring queer history.


Text Tom Rasmussen
Image via Oxford Dictionaries

queer culture
Gay language