Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Polari is a mixture of Lingua franca, Italian, Romany, Cockney Rhyming Slang, Parlyaree (a form of slang developed from cant and used by prostitutes, criminals, beggars, travelling circus people and grafters) and backslang, in which common words are pronounced as if spelt backwards. For example, in back slang 'face' becomes 'ecaf', which then became 'eek' in Polari (this gives rise to the archetypical Polari phrase: "How bona to vada your eek!" - "How good to see your face!"). It also contains words from the Jewish subculture which settled in the East End of London, the US forces (present in the UK during World War II) and 1960s drug-users. It was a constantly developing form of language, with a small core lexicon of about 20 words (including bona, ajax, eek, cod, naff, lattie, nanti, omi, palone, riah, zhoosh, TBH, trade, vada), with over 500 other less well-known items.
Polari was used in London fishmarkets, the theatre and the gay subculture in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, becoming more widely known from its use by two camp characters, Julian and Sandy, in Round the Horne, a popular BBC radio show which ran from 1964 to 1969. It grew up primarily to disguise homosexual activity from potentially hostile outsiders (such as undercover policemen), but also because many gay men worked in entertainment (including circuses, hence the many borrowings from Romany in Polari). It was also used extensively in the Merchant Navy, where many gay men joined cruise ships (particularly P&O) as waiters, stewards and entertainers. It was mainly used by camp or effeminate gay men, who tended to come from working class backgrounds. In a sense, they had the least to lose by being "out".
Polari had begun to fall into disuse by the late 1960s. The popularity of Julian and Sandy ensured that this secret language was public property, and the gay liberationists of the 1970s viewed it as rather degrading, divisive and politically incorrect (a lot of it was used to gossip about or criticise people, as well as discussing sexual exploits). Since the mid-1990s, with the redistribution of tapes and cds of Round the Horne and increasing academic interest, Polari was undergone a slight revival. It will probably never die out completely, but new words are continually being invented and updated to refer to more recent cultural concepts - for example, the recent term "Madonna claw" means an old withered hand. In 2002 two books on Polari were published, Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men, and Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang (both by Paul Baker).
A great many words from polari have entered mainstream slang, such as "naff". This word became famous in the television sitcom Porridge in the 1970s, which employed it as an alternative to expletives which were not at the time considered broadcastable. There are a number of possible origins of the term "naff", many based around acronyms (e.g. Not Available For Fucking, Normal As Fuck) - the term was originally used to dismissively refer to heterosexual people. Porridge also introduced a verb sense: "naff off!", later famously used by Princess Anne in 1982. 
See also: Cockney rhyming slang
Polari in use
"Omies and palones of the jury, vada well at the eek of the poor ome who stands before you, his lallies trembling."
(Translation: "Men and women of the jury, look well at the face of the poor man who stands before you, his legs trembling.")
"So bona to vada...oh you! Your lovely eek and your lovely riah." (Taken from "Piccadilly Palare", a song by musician Morrissey)
(Translation: "So good to see...oh you! Your lovely face and your lovely hair.")
References and external links
- Julian and Sandy feature on Kenneth Williams Website
- Article on Polari with bibliography
- FAQ and Information about the book: Polari, the Lost Language of Gay Men, by Paul Baker (2002) London: Routledge.
- Hugh Young's Lexicon of Polari
- "World Wide Words" column on the use of Polari in Round the Horne
- The Polari Bible
- Colin Richardson, The Guardian, 17 January 2005, "What brings you trolling back, then?"
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