Fifty years ago, the Sexual Offences Act became law, decriminalising homosexual acts that took place in private between two men over the age of 21. Fiona Macdonald looks at a gay slang that became a form of defiance.

“And Gloria cackled, let there be sparkle; and there was sparkle.” It’s a passage from the Bible, but not as we know it: this is a familiar line from the Book of Genesis as spoken in Polari. The secret language became a kind of verbal wink between gay men in Britain during the early 20th Century – allowing them to hide and to reveal at the same time.

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“One of the things that makes Polari so powerful is that it is simultaneously about disguise and identification,” the artist Jez Dolan tells BBC Culture. “You would be hiding what you were talking about from people who didn’t know it, but also if you were in a bar and you liked the look of somebody, you’d pop it into conversation and they’d either go ‘ah’ or they’d look blank and you’d be on your way.” Polari is rarely spoken today. Yet in the years when homosexuality was illegal, it was a way of communicating in public without risking arrest – as well as a chance to challenge the status quo.

Layering upon layering of different influences ensures that there is no one single version of Polari but many versions – Paul Baker

“It was a secret, spoken form of language, used mainly by groups of people who were on the margins of society and associated with criminality,” says Paul Baker, a linguistic history expert at the University of Lancaster and author of Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang. “There was little academic interest in it and it would not have been viewed as respectable enough to be taken seriously.” As a result, it wasn’t written down – and Baker argues it’s not necessarily even one language. “Layering upon layering of different influences ensures that there is no one single version of Polari but many versions, and very little agreement about the spellings, pronunciations and meanings of words.”

Slang, dunk

Baker has found it difficult to untangle a clear history of the lexicon. “Polari has a long and complicated provenance, and not all of it is fully known because it was spoken by marginalised groups who didn’t usually have their voices or stories recorded,” he says. While ‘bona’ (meaning ‘good’ or ‘attractive’), which pops up frequently, was first recorded in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II, some of the earliest words in Polari come from 18th-Century ‘Molly Slang’. “Mollies were men who were camp and had sex with other men,” says Baker. “These men were sometimes imprisoned and so some words of the criminal slang Cant would have crept into their language use.”

Baker describes how another form of slang, Parlyaree (from ‘parlare’, the Italian for ‘to talk’), was used by buskers, travelling circus and fairground people, market stall holders, prostitutes and beggars. Derived from Italian, it began to be used in music halls in the late 19th Century, and became known as Palarie. “There were influences from Lingua Franca… used by sailors, as well as cockney rhyming slang and Yiddish which were found particularly in the East End of London.” Some of the words are what’s been called ‘backslang' – hair is ‘riah’, and face is ‘eek’ (from ‘ecaf’).

After it was taken up in music halls, Palarie became associated with gay men at the start of the 20th Century. “Added to this were bits of class-room French which the speakers thought made them sound sophisticated – or for ironic purposes.” US GIs stationed in the UK during World War Two contributed a few American slang terms, and in the 1960s, what was by then known as Polari co-opted a few counter-culture terms for drug use. To make things more complicated, Baker has seen a few ‘backronyms’, or definitions applied after a word’s meaning has evolved – such as ‘camp’ as coming from ‘Known As Male Prostitute’.

Polari has its own vocabulary for elements that mainstream society is not interested in – Paul Baker

Baker believes Polari is a form of ‘anti-language’ – a term coined by the linguist Michael Halliday in 1978 that Baker defines as “a language used by people who are on the ‘outside’ of mainstream society”. “It has its own vocabulary for elements that mainstream society is not interested in,” he says. “Words relating to gay sex or evaluating male bodies – but it also demonstrates an alternative value system.” He picks out the word ‘sea-queen’, which means a man who likes to have sex with sailors.

As Dolan puts it, “Language is there to make things clearer and make communication easier, and this is sometimes about making communication more difficult.” He refers to a classic BBC radio comedy series that aired from 1965 to 1968 and which regularly peppered its characters’ speech with Polari. Round the Horne starred Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams as out-of-work actors Julian and Sandy – described by Baker in a 2000 academic paper as “a pair of outrageous, camp ‘queens’ who shrieked their way into radio mythology with an unending supply of queer banter which somehow managed to escape the censors”.

According to Dolan, one of the writers, Barry Took, revealed that using Polari meant they got some of the ruder sketches through the censor. “In one scene, someone says ‘go in there and do the washing up’ – the other one says ‘I’m not going in there, all the dishes are dirty’. Dish could mean a dishy man, but it also means ‘arse’. The majority of people wouldn’t know that,” he says.

Packing a punchline

Humour was a key component of Polari, which had several different functions. “It was sometimes taught by older, more established people on the gay scene as a way of initiating newer people into a camp worldview,” says Baker. “Some gay men used it socially, to make one another laugh, sometimes by conducting humorous arguments which involved clever insults in Polari. It could be used for secrecy in public settings, although if someone was dressed in a very flamboyant way, their sexuality would not be a secret and Polari could be used more aggressively to insult people who might have been hostile.”

“It operates on lots of different layers of meaning,” says Dolan. “With Julian and Sandy in particular, you had to be in on the joke to be in on the joke – if you didn’t know, then you’d have no idea what was going on.”

In the years before the Sexual Offences Act, Polari was also a chance to be defiant in a climate of persecution. “Polari speakers referred to the police as ‘Betty bracelets’ or ‘Lily law’, which feminised them; Polari speakers feminised everyone,” says Baker. Other phrases included ‘Hilda handcuffs’ and ‘Jennifer justice’. This ideological slant is what sets it apart from mere slang, believes Baker.

Polari was not just a secret language, it was an alternative way of looking at the world – Paul Baker

“The important point about Polari is that it was not just a secret language, it was an alternative way of looking at the world,” he tells BBC Culture. “A word like ‘bona’ didn't just mean good, it meant good by the values of the gay subculture. And the humorous or camp worldview was a coping strategy in dealing with difficult situations like abuse, attack, blackmail or arrest. Appearing to be upset about a broken nail or askew wig, rather than being arrested, made the speaker not seem to care about the ways that mainstream society tried to shame them.” He points out that making light of difficult situations isn’t limited to Polari speakers: “it’s often found in British adventure fiction or films where a hero like James Bond will make a quip when in a tight situation”.

From frock to shock

While talking in Polari can allow fruity language to go undetected, it could also work the other way. “It might sound rude but often it isn’t,” says Dolan, whose favourite phrase is the saucy-sounding ‘Lau your luppers on the strillers bona’ – which has the innocent meaning of ‘play something nice on the piano’.

And it still has the power to shock. Dolan has been a member of the worldwide LGBT activist group Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence for 20 years, known by the name Sister Gypsy TV Filmstar. After one of his fellow nuns (Sister Matic de Bauchery, or Tim Greening Jackson) translated the Bible into Polari, Dolan organised ‘Bibleathons’ in which sections were read out by Polari scholars.

Trainee priests at a Church of England theological college went further in February 2017 when they celebrated LGBT history month by holding a service in Polari. Instead of the traditional “Glory be to the father, and to the son, and the Holy Spirit”, the prayer offered was: “Fabeness be to the Auntie, and to the Homie Chavvie, and to the Fantabulosa Fairy”, while an Old Testament line saying “rend your heart and not your garments, return to the Lord your God” was turned into “rend your thumping chest and not your frocks – and turn unto the Duchess your Gloria: for she is bona and merciful”. The college principal expressed regret for the incident, explaining that the liturgy had not been authorised for use.

The apology “shows that in some contexts it is viewed as inappropriate, even though its use was intended to show LGBT inclusivity,” says Baker. “There is that thing of defiance,” says Dolan. “It’s about claiming queer space as well, so that you would use it in as elaborate a fashion as possible to claim a space – particularly when queer people weren’t given those spaces, or were kept away from those spaces.”

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