From ‘camp’ to ‘khazi’, chances are you’ve used Polari without even knowing it. Arriving around four hundred years ago in British ports as ‘Parlyaree’, a cod form of Italian, the language evolved into a secret code largely used by working class gay men. Polari was spread through markets, fairgrounds and theatres and was a mish-mash of Yiddish, Romani, back-slang and cockney rhyming slang.
Perfect for a bitchy snipe in the green room, “Vada the naff strides on the omee ajax” (look at the terrible trousers on that man nearby) the uninitiated would remain on the outside of the ‘cackle’ (gossip/talk). Polari could be dropped into conversation, so gay men (or ‘Omi-Polones’) could recognise one another at a time when being out was criminalised.
Thanks to the popular 1960’s radio programme Round the Horne, Polari hit the mainstream. Round the Horne was packed full of double entendres. Seemingly innocuous phrases like ‘doing the dishes’ were rolled out with a delicious knowing by Kenneth Williams (in Polari ‘dish’ means bum).
With the decriminalisation of male homosexuality and lessening of stigma, Polari became considered a bit, well, ‘naff’ (itself a Polari word) and a new generation of lesbian and gay activists sought to distance themselves from it.
Ironically, given its origins as the language of a criminalised subculture, today Polari is largely the preserve of academics. There is even a Polari version of the King James Bible, created by the activist group the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
As the Polari translation of 1 Corinthians 13:8 in the good book says: “Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be polaris, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” (Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.)