And Talking of Coded Language

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And Talking of Coded Language

Post by Redbeck » 24 May 2018 21:10


Polari (or alternatively Parlare, Parlary, Palare, Palarie, Palari; from Italian parlare, ‘to talk’) is linguistically speaking, forgive the unintentional word play, a form of cant slang used in Britain by some actors, circus and fairground showmen, professional wrestlers, merchant navy sailors, criminals, prostitutes, along with the gay subculture.

While there is some debate about the slanguage’s origins, it can be traced back to, at the very least, the 19th century and quite possibly the 16th century. There is also a long-standing connection to Punch and Judy street puppet performers who traditionally used Polari to converse amongst themselves.


Polari is an exotic mixture of Romance (Italian or Mediterranean Lingua Franca), Romani (Before the late 19th century, English texts usually referred to Romani incorrectly as the ‘Gypsy language’), London slang, backslang (an English coded language in which the written word is spoken phonemically backwards), rhyming slang (a form of slang word construction in the English language that uses rhyme) sailor slang, and thieves' cant (also known as peddler's French, was a secret language [a cant or cryptolect] formerly used by thieves, beggars and hustlers of various kinds in Great Britain. Later Polari expanded to embrace words coming from the Yiddish language and from 1960s drug subculture slang. Thus it was a constantly developing form of language, with a narrow core lexicon of about 20 words.

These words included: bona [good], ajax [nearby], eek [face], cod [bad, in the sense of tacky or vile], naff (bad, in the sense of drab or dull, although this word eventually making its way into mainstream British English with the same sense as the aforementioned cod], lattie [room, house, flat, i.e. room to let], nanti [not, no], omi [man], palone [woman], riah [hair], zhooshor tjuz [smarten up, stylise], TBH ['to be had', sexually accessible], trade (flower), and vada (see), and over 500 other lesser known words. Researchers have established that in London there was once an ‘East End’ version that emphasised Cockney rhyming slang and a ‘West End’ version which stressed theatrical and Classical influences. It is understood that there was also some interchange between the two forms.

Polari was used in London fishmarkets, the theatre, fairgrounds and circuses, hence the many inclusions borrowed from Romani. As many homosexual men worked in the theatrical entertainment industry, it was also used among the gay subculture, at a time when homosexual activity was illegal, to disguise homosexuals from hostile outsiders and undercover policemen. It was also used extensively in the British Merchant Navy, where many gay men joined ocean liners and cruise ships as waiters, stewards and entertainers.

Indeed William Shakespeare used the term bona (good, attractive) in Henry IV Part II, part of the expression bona roba (a lady wearing an attractive outfit). Nevertheless, ‘there's little [other] written evidence of Polari before the 1890s,’ according to Peter Gilliver, associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary's entry for rozzer (policeman), for example, includes this quote from an 1893 book (P. H. Emerson's Signor Lippo - Burnt Cork Artiste): ‘If the rozzers was to see him in bona clobber they'd take him for a gun.’ (If the police were to see him dressed in this fine manner, they would know that he is a thief).

The almost identical Parlyaree has been spoken in fairgrounds since at least the seventeenth century and continues to be used by show travellers in England and Scotland. As theatrical booths, circus acts and menageries were once common features of European fairs it is likely that the roots of Polari/Parlyaree lie in the period prior to when both theatres and circuses finally established themselves as separate entities from the fairgrounds. The Parlyaree spoken on fairgrounds tends to borrow much more from Romany, as well as other languages and argots spoken by travelling people, such as cant and backslang.


English social researcher, journalist, playwright and advocate of reform, as well as one of the co-founders of the satirical and humorous magazine Punch in 1841, Henry Mayhew gave a verbatim account of Polari as part of an interview with a Pinch and Judy showman in the 1850s. The discussion he wrote up references the arrival of Punch magazine in England, with credit for these early shows going to a performer from Italy called Porcini, Mayhew describes the following:

Punch Talk

"'Bona Parle' means languageor name of patter. 'Yeute munjare' = no food. 'Yeute lente' = no bed. 'Yeute bivare' = no drink. I've 'yeute munjare,' and 'yeute bivare,' and, what's worse, 'yeute lente.' This is better than the costers' talk, because that ain't no slang and all, and this is a broken Italian, and much higher than the costers' lingo. We know what o'clock it is, besides."

There are additional accounts of particular words that relate to puppet performance: "'Slumarys' – figures, frame, scenes, properties.'Slum' – call, or unknown tongue", ("unknown" is a reference to the "swizzle”, a voice modifier used by Punch performers, the structure of which was a longstanding trade secret).

Despite its popularity Polari had begun to fall into disuse amongst the gay subculture by the late 1960s. The popularity of the radio characters Julian and Sandy played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams (first introduced in the programme Round the Horne in the 1960s) ensured that at least some of this secret language became public knowledge. In addition, the need for a secret subculture code began to decline in parallel with the partial decriminalisation of adult homosexual acts in England and Wales, under the Sexual Offences Act of 1967.

A number of words from Polari have entered mainstream British slang. The list below includes words in general use with the meanings listed as acdc [bisexual], barney [a fight], blag [pick up], butch [masculine or masculine lesbian], camp [effeminate], khazi [toilet], cottaging [seeking or obtaining sexual encounters in public lavatories], hoofer [dancer], mince [walk affectedly], ogle [look admiringly], scarper [to run off], slap [make up], strides [trousers], tod [alone], [rough] trade [flower, flower-partner, potential flower-partner].


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