Monday, 20 February 2012

How Bona To Vada Your Dolly Old Eek!


In the 1950s and 60s, gay men spoke a slang, Polari, to avoid detection and prosecution.

How did Polari come about?
Polari has its origins in a variety of slangs from theatre speech to thieves’ cant to back slang. It arose as a way for homosexual men to gossip and talk about their sex lives (and other people’s!) without revealing dangerous information to outsiders.

During the post war period and into the 1960s, gay men could be (and often were) arrested for any indication of male-male sex. Their diaries and address books were confiscated and combed for evidence of ‘homosexual rings’ so that more ‘perverts’ and ‘queers’ could be arrested.

Perhaps worse, if an unscrupulous person found evidence that a man was homosexual, they might blackmail him, squeezing money from someone too scared to go to the police. (The 1961 film, Victim starring Dirk Bogarde, shows how easy it was to extort money this way.)

‘Why did Polari fall out of use?’ you ask
  • In 1967, ten years after the Wolfenden Report made its recommendations, Parliament finally made sexual acts between two consenting males in private provided they were over 21. Suddenly, the need for caution was not quite so great. Although the change in law didn’t stop blackmail and violence at once.
  • Round the Horne crackled out of the nation's wirelesses on Sunday afternoons from 1965, becoming one of the most popular comedies of the era until it finished in 1969. With its ground breaking mixture of innuendo, camp comedy and word play, it netted a regular audience of more than 15million listeners and was one of the best loved programmes in radio history. Two of its characters were Julian and Sandy, two ‘resting’ thespians who had a regular spot show casing their adventures. Kenneth Williams camped his way through the script as limp-wristed Sandy, normally introduced by Hugh Paddick's character saying "Hello, I'm Julian and this is my friend, Sandy", making homosexual double entendres that allowed British suburbia to laugh openly about what had been strictly taboo. They sprinkled their conversation with lashings of Polari, introducing it to a wider audience.
  • As the gay rights movement gained confidence, many activists saw Polari as a reminder of the oppression of previous years and rejected it.

  • In the early 21 century, there was a revival of interest. Staff in Madame Jojo’s, a cabaret bar, were taught Polari. As many of them were not native speakers of English, it helped them communicate with the bar’s patrons.
  • Dr Paul Baker, senior lecturer in linguistics at Lancaster University, has made a study of Polari and its use and origins.

A bit of Polari for the Novice…
Body..................................bod, leucoddy
Bulge of male genitals.....basket
Clothes..............................clobber, drag
Drink..................................bevvy, buvare, schumph (vb)
Dull, boring........................naff
Good looking
(Talking) rubbish...............(cackling) balonie
Young boy..........................chicken

BEVVY: Possibly short for ‘beverage’, maybe related to the Italian: bevo - I drink.
CAMP: Allegedly short for Known As Male Prostitue
DRAG: Particularly referred to women’s clothes; believed to have come from Shakespearean stage directions: “So-and-so enters, DRessed As a Girl”.
DISH: In one episode of Round The Horne, a character complained that "All the dishes are dirty!" "Ooh speak for yourself, ducky!" said his chum, quick as a flash. The audience probably got the use of the word ‘dish’ as an attractive young man, as in "Isn't he dishy?", but only fluent Polari speakers would also know that it refers to a person’s backside, which would afford them an extra special laugh.
NAFF: Originally used to denote sexual non-availability of a heterosexual man, it allegedly is an abbreviation of ‘Not Available For Fucking’. Its meaning evolved later to ‘dull', 'boring', 'drab', etc. The opposite in meaning was ‘TBH’ (or ‘to be had’).

Counting to ten in Polari:
1    una
2    dewey
3    trey
4    quarter
5    chinker   
6    sey
7    setter
8    say dooe
9    sey trey
10    dacha   

Some of my sources:


  1. Interesting - but I'm not convinced by your suggestion about the origins of some of the words. For example "drag", I suspect that “So-and-so enters, DRessed As a Girl” is just a backronym. Drag is perhaps more likely to have come from Germanic words like tragen (Dutch to wear or carry), dragen (German to wear or carry).
    "Round the Horne" is a good laugh on BBC Internet Radio 4 Extra.

    1. Wikipedia is quite good on this, it suggests: Romani — indraka — skirt