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Polari

Backslang - A type of slang that involves reversing the spelling or pronunciation of words. For example, old becomes delo.

Throughout the 1930s-60s, Polari could be heard throughout London in places where gay men, theatre and circus folk, and potential criminals hung out, such as in bars, cafes, and the theatre. Polari wasn't only common in London but could also be found across cities with a sizeable gay community.

The secretness of Polari allowed people who, at the time, were deemed lawbreakers to talk amongst themselves confidently without fear of being reported or caught by undercover police.

By the end of the 1960s, Polari started to die out, mainly because the need to 'hide' from the law was no longer as necessary and because the language itself wasn't much of a secret anymore. In the mid-1960s, two famous British comedians began using Polari on a popular radio show, meaning the secrecy of the secret language was lost.

Today, some Polari words are still in use and have made their way into mainstream slang.

Polari Words

Due to the nature of the language, Polari contains a lot of words surrounding sexuality, clothing, appearances, and the gay lifestyle at the time. Polari has a core vocabulary of around 20/25 words, as well as around 450+ words that are known by some but not others.

As Polari is predominantly a lexical language variety that derived from English, its grammar remained much the same as that of English. Although most people used Polari by simply exchanging out some English words, a few Polari speakers attempted to standardize and record Polari grammar.

These rules were similar to English grammar, except slightly more standardized. For example,

  • Add the suffix "-s" to the end of a noun to make a plural

  • Add the suffix "-er" to the end of a verb to create a noun

  • Add the suffix "-ing" to the end of a verb to show a continuous aspect

  • Add the suffix "-ed" to the end of a verb to show a completed aspect

Vada = to look

Vadar = a person who looks

Vadared = saw

Vadaring = looking

Omi = man

Vadaring omi = a looking man

Polari Numbers

Polari also had its own number system, suggesting the language was once used on a daily basis for everyday activities.

The numbers are:

Polari English
Una/oneyOne
DooeyTwo
TrayThree
QuarterFour
ChinkerFive
SaySix
Say oneySeven
Say dooeyEight
Say trayNine
DaitureTen

Polari Slang

By the end of the 1960s, many polari words had made it into mainstream slang, and some Polari words can still be heard in Britain, and around the world, today.

The first time Polari really made an impact in the mainstream media was when it appeared on the BBC radio show Round the Horne in the mid-60s. The show began using Polari in some of its sketches and Polari vocabulary began making its way into the mainstream from there. Famous Polari lines that appeared in the show included:

Bona to vada your dolly old eke

Translation: Nice to see your pretty old face

Omies and palones of the jury, vada well at the eek of the poor ome who stands before you, his lallies trembling

Translation: Men and women of the jury, look well at the face of the poor man who stands before you, his legs trembling.

Polari has also cropped up in other mainstream media outlets, such as in a song by the British artist Morrisey (So bona to vada...oh you! Your lovely eek and your lovely riah - from 'Piccadilly Palare'), and even in an episode of Ru Paul's Drag Race.

Some Polari words that exist in slang today include:

  • Naff - tasteless

  • Camp - a feminine man

  • Butch - a masculine woman

  • Slap - makeup

  • Drag - women's clothes

Polari Dictionary

There is no official Polari dictionary, and it's unlikely one is going to appear any time soon. However, a handful of Polari words have made their way into the Oxford English Dictionary, including naff and butch.

Polari - Key takeaways

  • Polari is a predominantly lexical language that derived from English out of necessity in the 1930s.
  • Polari was predominantly used by gay men, gay women, members of the theatre and the circus, market stall vendors, and sailors.
  • Polari was used as a secret language to allow those who were breaking the law at the time to do so without being caught.
  • Polari words originated from several different sources, such as Italian, Romani, Cockney rhyming slang, Yiddish, Thieves Cant, and British drug culture slang.
  • Some examples of Polari words include naff (tasteless), bona (good), riah (hair), vada (to look), and Vera Lynn (gin).

Frequently Asked Questions about Polari

Polari is no longer commonly used; however, some Polari words are used in slang, especially in the UK, today.

Polari is a lexical language variety. It can be considered a sociolect and an anti-language.

Polari was created out of necessity in the 1930s so that those who were breaking the law at the time could do so in secrecy. Prior to the end of the 1960s, homosexuality was considered a crime in the UK, so Polari was often used by gay men and women.

Polari was mainly used between the 1930s and the 1970s.

In Polari, bona to vada means "good to see".

Final Polari Quiz

Question

Choose two categories that Polari falls under

Show answer

Answer

Sociolect 

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Question

Choose two influences present in Polari

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Answer

Cockney rhyming slang 

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Question

What is backslang?

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Answer

A type of slang that involves reversing the spelling or pronunciation of words. For example, old becomes delo.

Show question

Question

Polari is mainly a lexical language. What does that mean?

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Answer

Only it's vocabulary differs from another language.

Show question

Question

What does riah mean? 

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Answer

Hair 

Show question

Question

Explain the etymology of the Polari word riah 

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Answer

It is backslang, meaning it is the word hair spelled backwards 

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Question

Choose the best definition for anti-language 

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Answer

A minority language used by a small specific group that actively excludes the wider society.

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Question

Briefly explain why Polari fell out of use

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Answer

Because the need for a secret language was no longer necessary after the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 made homosexuality legal in the UK. Polari words also started entering the mainstream, meaning the language was no longer secret.

Show question

Question

Choose the etymological technique for the phrase Vera Lynn (meaning gin)

Show answer

Answer

Cockney rhyming slang 

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Question

True or false, some Polari words have made it into the Oxford English Dictionary?

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Answer

True 

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Question

Which groups of people were most likely to use Polari?

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Answer

Those breaking the law in some way 

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Question

Choose the best definition for the word naff

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Answer

Tasteless 

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Question

In which decade did Polari first appear?

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Answer

1930s

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Question

Polari is thought to originate from an old slang language named Parlyaree. Who spoke it?

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Answer

Travelers, circus members, market stall vendors, and beggars

Show question

Question

Which act made homosexuality legal in the UK?

Show answer

Answer

The Sexual Offences Act of 1967

Show question

Question

What does etymology mean?

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Answer

The history and origins of a word 

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