Sunday, 15 August 2010

Victorian Polari!

Polari is a gay/theatrical argot known in the UK from the Julian and Sandy sketches of the 1960s radio show, Round The Horne. This is a sample...
HORNE: I'm interested in booking a holiday.
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 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.

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:


  1. Was this by chance the source:
    1898 Binstead & Wells Pink ’Un and Pelican 20: The Manchester Lothario had got twenty pounds on Barcaldine with the ‘Nanty Poloney Ironclad Firm'.

    If so it's a concoction by the staff of the late 19th cent. Sporting Times (aka 'The Pink 'Un' and yes, the same ones who brought us the Ashes) and notably Arthur 'The Pitcher' Binstead and Ernest 'Swears' Wells (though the latter was a club owner rather than full-time journo.) Anyway, you probably know about them. And if not, I recommend anything by Binstead or by the ST's historian JB Booth, e.g. Old Pink 'Un Days.

    As for Polari in general, there's a piece on my website, which might help explain the history:

  2. Thanks for the link to your Polari essay. In addition to single words there are also some very nice (well, I think!) Polari-based expressions. I don't know how common these are now. I picked up a few from one proudly camp gay man in the '70s and I must admit that I still use them from time to time to this day: e.g. "Camp as a pair of knickers" and "Camp as a field of boyscouts". There are also some ruder ones which may have to wait until I think of a way of introducing them into this blog without raising a blush on the cheek of modesty.

  3. There are a couple more similes in GDoS too. I seem to have 94 terms taken from Polari. But there are doubtless others. I was maybe 14 in the heyday of Jules and Sand. We laughed, but we (I) certainly didn't remotely understand. I interviewed a former merchant navy steward for an oral history of sex I did in 1992: he was still fluent and definitely regretted what he then saw as Polari's extinction.

  4. I'm sure you only mentioned an "oral history of sex" in order to get a bit of smut into these comments! :-)

    I love Polari. I didn't understand Jules and Sandy either when I first heard them. Later in life I knew a few people who were fairly active Polari speakers. I think they are pretty thin on the ground these days (though I do know one or two showbiz people who still use it to some extent). In the '70s and early '80s, it was still possible to find reasonably fluent speakers. Words such as lally, omi, polone, chicken etc. were used 'naturally' (rather than just in imitation of Jules and Sandy). I'm sure there were other words in use which I've since forgotten. I have a feeling that Polari used to come in various dialects and that certain words used in the North might have been unfamiliar in the South, for example. I suspect that Polari has become so much diluted through imitation that it would now be almost impossible to reconstruct regional variations.

    Incidentally, I haven't yet had a chance to study the Dictionary in any depth. Too much work even over Christmas - it's what happens when you are your own employer. As soon as I get a bit of spare time, I shall delve deep...