Remembering Polari, the Forgotten Language of Britain's Gay Community
Once commonly spoken by gay men across London, Polari has largely fallen out of use. But its influence continues to endure to this day—even making a surprise appearance in Bowie's last album.
Photo by Simone Becchetti via Stocksy
When David Bowie released his album Blackstar in January 2016, music critics were quick to heap praise on the cultural icon's final work. But few recognized the menacing and erotic blend of fictional and hidden languages embedded in the lyrics of track "Girl Loves Me": Predominantly Nadsat, the language of Anthony Burgess' novel A Clockwork Orange, and Polari, the forgotten British language of 20th century gay men.
"Cheena so sound, so titi up this malchick, say party up moodge," sings Bowie, marrying the two languages to each other. To the uninitiatied, Bowie's lyrics are nonsensical—but on translation, with "titi" meaning "pretty" in Polari and "Cheena," "malchick," and "moodge" meaning "girl", "boy," and "man" in Nadsat—they read as 'Girl so sound, so pretty up this boy, say party up man.'"
"Bowie often drew on obscure cultural forms from marginalized, minority groups, so him using Polari is entirely typical," says Will Brooker, a professor of film and cultural studies at Kingston University. "It's a kind of cut-up technique, which of course he famously used in the 1970s and 1990s. It's another mask, hiding his emotions behind this screen of made-up words. He was, after all, dying of cancer and bidding farewell to everyone he knew."
Brooker—who recently completed a new academic book on Bowie after dressing and living as him for a year—describes the Blackstar singer as a pioneering queer figure in the early 1970s.
"He was an important role model for many queer people," Brooker says, explaining that Blackstar functions as Bowie's goodbye to his early creative influences. "He's rounding up his old favorites fondly, paying tribute and revisiting memories from his past. It's known that Bowie had many friends in London's queer circles of the 1970s, so it was no surprise Polari was a part of his life."
But what is Polari?
Meaning "to talk" in Italian, Polari was the hidden language used by gay men in England to navigate their sexual identities without being caught by police. In the UK, homosexuality was criminalized until 1967, when the Sexual Offences Act legalized private "homosexual acts" between consenting adults over the age of 21 (although not in Scotland or Northern Ireland).
Prior to the amendments, being caught having gay sex could result in a prison sentence of two years, or invasive and humiliating hormone therapy. Alan Turing, the gay British mathematician behind the infamous WW2 "enigma code" that cracked enciphered German messages, was given a course of female hormones by doctors as an alternative to prison after being prosecuted by the police because of his homosexuality.
As a result of the law and entrenched homophobia, gay men had to be careful not to get caught and outed. One British tabloid newspaper, the Sunday Mirror published an article in 1962 called "How to Spot a Possible Homo": "It is high time we had a short course on how to pick a pervert... Basically homos fall into two groups - the obvious and the concealed...They are everywhere, and they can be anybody."
Although largely died out, some Polari is still spoken in the UK to this day. "Blowjob" is a case in point: Some speculate that the Polari word was derived from American slang introduced in Britain following the Second World War. Other terms such as "naff" (bad), "bevvy" (drink), and "camp" (effeminate) continue to be used colloquially. Polari is the language you didn't even know you were using.
The history of Polari is murky, as Jo Stanley and Paul Baker explain in their book Hello Sailor!: The Hidden History of Gay Life At Sea. They trace Polari's origins back to Thieves' Cant, a secret language used by thieves. Gay men in London pubs and taverns would use Cant to socialize and make sexual contacts. In fact, "trade" (meaning "sexual partner" in both Cant and Polari) is still used by many gay men today to mean the same thing. As the years went on, Polari picked up words—usually Italian in origin—from circus and travelling communities, prostitution rings, sailors, beggars, and the theatre world, where the language was predominantly used for most of the early 20th century. Polari proved popular amongst choir boys, dancers, and actors, many of whom were gay.
More of a "cryptolect" (a form of slang or argot used exclusively avoid certain detection or judgement from others) than a fully formed language, gay men would drop Polari terms into conversation: If the listener responded with Polari in turn, you could identify each other's sexual orientation surreptitiously.
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There are parallels between the rise of Polari in the 20th century and the Victorian practice—famously adopted by Oscar Wilde—of wearing green carnations to secretly indicate one's homosexuality. Police brutality in the 50s, 60s, and 70s towards gay men was endemic, the reality of which is represented in the abundance of Polari slang for police officers; Betty Bracelets, Lillian Law, Jennifer Justice. Stanley and Baker argue that the gay community responded to these physical attacks with verbal irony: It's no coincidence that the language used to describe the police usually interrogated their sense of masculinity and bravado.
Meanwhile, life as a homosexual man in 1960s London could feel in some ways like being admitted to a secret club. Gay men would pick up other men for sex using Polar, whether it was cruising in parks, in the shadows of public toilets, or visits to the secret twilight underground world of bars and clubs.
Although it was not so long ago that Polari was actively spoken on London's streets, it's now fallen out of widespread use—taking on a cult status amongst gay men due to its historical significance, rather than practical relevance. "It's more like a signifier of gay social history," explains Paul Baker, a Polari expert at Lancaster University. "I've seen it used in the names of gay establishments across the UK and Ireland, such as a Brighton restaurant, Bona Foodie, playing on the Polari term 'bona fide.' This is ironic in some ways," he adds, "A secret language being used to advertise a gay establishment."
Ironically, Polari's popularity is partly to blame for its demise. To suggest a language died out because more people were speaking it sounds almost ludicrous, but Polari was a language which depended on its exclusivity. As changing social attitudes following the decriminalization of homosexuality allowed gay men to live more openly—and with British radio comedy series Round the Horne popularizing the language to a mainstream audience—the reason for its existence was lost. Gay men no longer needed to hide in the same way that they had done before. Polari had become redundant.
Polari may be gone, but gay languages continue to exist in communities and nations around the world with institutionalized or endemic homophobia. Linguistic scholar William Leap terms them "Lavender Linguistics" (the color lavender has long been associated with LGBT communities.) In the Philippines, a gloriously camp and pop-culture driven cryptolect called Swardspeak has grown from a secret LGBTQ language into a playful and comical form of slang injected into the Filipino mainstream and used by many in the entertainment industry.
In Brazil, Pajubá is the secret language of the trans community, used to subvert yet reinforce queer identity. Pajubá allows trans men and women to both conceal their identities with a hidden language, but also acts as a badge of their public identity. And in South Africa, two hidden gay languages exist; one for the white gay community and another for the black gay community. Gayle—the white variant—was the lexicon of "koffie-moffies" (Afrikaans for "coffee gay men," a slang name for male flight attendant in the 1970s), and parallels Polari heavily by borrowing terms from British slang. IsiNgqumo is the black queer variant, though it has Zulu and not Polari roots.
Polari was an expression of community, of a nascent sense of shared identity—it's camp, it's funny, it's over the top.
Even if you don't live in a country where entrenched homophobia requires you to live secretly, many gay men continue to use language as a marker of their identity. The gay jargon of today represents a playground of ominous bodily categorization and labelling, as displayed proudly in Grindr bios: top, bottom, twink, twunk, otter, daddy, bear, cub, and even, dare I say it, masc4masc. Our experiences and desires are also coded in lingo popularized through African-American and drag culture: gagged, sickening, slay, fierce, shade, and, of course, yassss.
Baker explains how there are still "functional" reasons for gay people to use their own slang. "It's probably more be around hooking up and specifying particular sexual roles or likes and dislikes. I think gay men generally try to play down their camp side when looking for sex, so there's very much a kind of performance of masculinity."
And while Polari isn't being used much today, it can still serve a purpose in helping members of the gay community navigate a sense of shared identity. Today's LGBTQ community live lives far more integrated than their 1960s peers could possibly have imagined: A truth shown by the closure of gay venues across the UK. In 2015, British directors Brian Fairbairn and Karl Eccleston created a short film showing Polari in use. Putting on the Dish (meaning "lubing up in preparation for anal sex" in Polari) shows two gay men switching in and out of the language in order to openly discuss sex and gossip in front of oblivious passersby.
"We wanted to highlight Polari's sheer linguistic exuberance," the directors tell Broadly. "Because Polari was a coded 'language,' when people talk about it the emphasis almost always ends up being placed upon the fact that it developed as a response to oppression, but it was so much more than that."
For Fairburn and Eccleston, Polari is life-affirming: A powerful assertion of gay identity that is unabashed and unashamed. "Polari was an expression of community, of a nascent sense of shared identity—it's camp, it's funny, it's over the top," Fairbairn argues. "There's no doubt that they really revelled in it when they could and that's what we've tried to capture."
In 2016, Polari's legacy lives on. It remains an integral part of queer culture and history that has not only shown how far gay men went to hide and play with their identities, but as a linguistic signpost of the LGBTQ community's creativity, uniqueness, nerve, and talent.