Polari – A Cinderella Among Languages

Polari –
A Cinderella Among Languages

Nantee dinarlee: The omee of the carsey
Says due bionc peroney, manjaree on the cross
We’ll have to scarper the jetty in the morning,
Before the bonee omee of the carsey shakes his doss
– Polari busker’s song

How bona to varda your dolly old eek!

Don’t be strange, troll in and welcome to my bijou cyber-drag lattie, devoted to the bespangled glory of polari. Polari (also Parlyaree, Parlary) is the most complete form of gay slang, comprising odds and sods from rhyming slang, circus backslang, Romany, Latin and criminal cant. Polari – originating from  the theatrical Parlyaree – is best described as a mish-mash of expressions and words thrown together to make a semi-comprehensible glossary, whose high renaissance was during the 1960’s when it was popularised in the mainstream by the larger than life characters of Julian and Sandy in the BBC Radio series Round The Horne.

A History of Polari

Gay slang in Britain dates back to the involvement of the homosexual subculture with the criminal “underworld”. The homosexual subculture of the Eighteenth Century mixed with the gypsies, tramps & thieves of popular song to produce a rich cross-fertilisation of customs, phrases and traditions. As the Industrial revolution dramatically changed settlement patterns, more and more people drifted away from villages and small communities and moved to larger towns in search of work and opportunity. In these larger urban locations, the scope for the development of communities of outcasts substantially increased. The growth of molly houses (private spaces for men to meet, drink, have sex together and practice communal rituals) encouraged the creation of a molly identity. A linguistic culture developed, feeding into that profession traditionally associated with poofs and whores: theatre.

Much of parlarey, the travelling showmen‘s language, appears to be derived from the lingua franca or the vocabulary of travelling actors and showmen during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Specifically theatrical parlyaree included phrases such as joggering omee (street musician), slang a dolly to the edge (to show and work a marionette on a small platform outside the performance booth in order to attract an audience) and climb the slanging-tree (perform onstage). Nanty dinarly (having no money) also had a peculiarly theatrical translation in the phrase “There’s no treasury today, the ghost doesn’t  walk.”

The disappearance of large numbers of travelling costermongers and cheapjacks by the early twentieth century effectively denied the language its breathing space. As many of the travelling entertainers moved sideways into travelling circus, so the language moved with them, kept alive as a living and changing language within circus culture.

By the mid-twentieth century, there had also been a cross-over to a recognisably gay form of slang, with polari used by the gay community to communicate in code in elaborate forms. Words such as trade and ecaf (backslang for face, shortened to eek) became part of gay subculture. Blagging trade (picking up sexual partners), zhoosing your riah (doing your hair), trolling to a bijou bar (stepping into a gay club) and dishing the dirt (recounting gossip) all became popular coded phrases to describe and encode an emerging homosexual lifestyle. By the 1950’s, with secret homosexual clubs emerging in swinging London and the Wolfenden Committee discussing the possibility of law reform around (homo) sexuality, it seems appropriate that polari should raise its irreverent head.

Polari became an appropriate tool with which to confuse and confound the naff omees (straight men). It travelled the world via the sea queens, who incorporated navy slang into a new version of the language and also accommodated local dialects and phrases. Polari, by its furtive nature, attracted the bawdy and ribald – something as innocent sounding as varda the colour of his eyes actually meant “check out the size of his penis” and nanty curtain meant an omee (man) was circumcised.

A Polari Glossary

acting dickey   temporary work
badge cove     
balonie              rubbish
barney              fight
battyfang          to hit and bite
young queen
bencove            close friend
bevie                public house,
billingsgate      bad language
bingey              penis
blag                  pick up
bloke                man, any fellow
bolus                chemist
bona                 good
bona nochy      good night
booth                room
bougereau–      outrageously
quality              nellie
buvare              a drink
cackle               talk/gossip
cant                  to talk
caravansera     railway station
carsey               house
charver             to have sex
chavies             boys, children
climb the           perfrom onstage
slanging tree
corybungus        arse
cottage               public toilet
cove                   friend, mate
diddle                gin
dinarly               money
do the rights      seek revenge
dolly                  dear
ecaf (eek)          face
Eine                   London
fakements          personal adorn-
fantabulosa       marvellous
farting crackers trousers
feeliers              girls, children
flatties               men (audience)

fungus               old man
gaffer                showman
gillie                 woman (audience)
hearing cheat   ear
lally                  leg
lattie                 home/house
lally covers      trousers
lav                   word
lily law
lucoddy           body
metzes             money
mince              walk effeminately
mish                shirt
moey               mouth
multi               many
mungaree       food
naff                 boring (straight)
nanty              none
nanty dinarly  penniless
omie                man
omiepalone     homosexual
on your tod     by yourself
palone             woman
parkering ninty wages/salary
parlary            to talk in polari
peroney           for each one
pig                   elephant
ponging           somersaulting
rattling cove
riah                  hair
scarper            escape
stampers          shoes
strillers            piano
strillers omie   pianist
thews                arms
trade                sexual partner
troll                  to walk
trundling cheat car
varda                to look
yews                 eyes

una     dewey   tray   quattro (quater)   chinker   sayi                setter    otter      nobba       10 daiture


See also:

‘The Color Of His Eyes’ in Queerly Phrased ed  Anna Livia & Kira Hall, (OUP 1997) my non-fiction essay on the language polari in a book on Queer Linguistics

‘A Cinderella Among Languages’  in Impertinent Decorum: Gay Theatrical Manoeuvres (Cassell, 1994) academic non-fiction based on my Master’s research on gay men and the imaginative creation of ‘theatrical identities’ through the use of The Body, Codes, and Public/Private Space

2 comments on “Polari – A Cinderella Among Languages

  1. […] Polari – A Cinderella Among Languages […]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. szegerton says:

    Adored Sandy and Julian, and have used he odd word of Polari here and there ever since. Good blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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