HORNE: I'm interested in booking a holiday.I had always assumed that Polari was a language confined exclusively to the homosexual and theatrical subculture of the early to mid-20th Century. It appears, however, that I was wrong.
JULIAN: Would you like us to do something exciting for you in a cheap package?
HORNE: Yes. What would you recommend?
SANDY: Well, how about Juan in the S of F? That's Les Pins. Bona, ennit Jules?
JULIAN: Divine. Sitting, sipping a tiny drinkette, vada-ing the great butch omis and dolly little palones trolling by, or disporting yourself on the sable plage getting your lallies all bronzed - your riah getting bleached by the soleil.
I happened to be reading a book called The Victorian Underworld about life on the seamier side of Victorian Britain. In one chapter, this mentions The Nanty Polone Ironclad firm of bookmakers. Now both ‘Nanty’ and ‘Polone’ are Polari words. “Nanty Polone” means "No women". I’m not sure if 'ironclad' has any special meaning in Polari. I suspect it is simply used in the commonplace metaphorical sense (as in an ‘ironclad’ or ‘unbreakable’ guarantee) deriving from ‘ironclad’ in the sense of a wooden ship covered with iron plating. Which may tie in nicely with the naval connection which also features in the history of Polari, as I’ll explain shortly.
As in other types of slang such as Cockney rhyming slang or French ‘Verlan’ (backslang), Polari functioned as a secret or coded language. It not only permitted Polari speakers to talk to one another without being understood by the people about whom they were talking (“Vada the lallies on that bona omi” = “Look at that good looking man’s legs”) but it was also an expression of membership of an exclusive group - often on the fringes of ‘acceptable society’ (homosexuality was still completely outlawed in the UK until 1967).
Polari uses a broad mix of words from a variety of sources. Quite a bit comes from Italian (‘nanty’ from ‘niente’, ‘bona’ from ‘buona’, ‘polari’ from ‘parlare’. There's some Yiddish, German and French (e.g. ‘bijou’) and possibly even some Welsh (I can’t help wondering if Polari’s ‘latty’ meaning "lodgings/digs" is related to the Welsh word, ‘llety’ with the same meaning?). There’s some back-slang too (‘ecaf’=face, ‘riah’=hair).
Given the fact that Polari was a typically gay/theatrical slang in the 20th century, how come it was being used by a bookmaker in the 19th? According to the Liverpool Museum site: "In the eighteenth century it was mainly used in pubs around the London dock area", later spread to merchant seafarers and only in the 1930s made its way into gay pubs and theatrical circles.
Polari is a fascinating (and, more important, funny!) argot and I shall no doubt return to it in future posts. In the meantime, if you’d like a more extensive sample, I recommend that you read a few Julian and Sandy sketches. You can find some here: http://www.users.zetnet.co.uk/fabulosa/page6.htm