Ooh, darling, pop on your oglefakes and have a varda at this!
Being twenty-nine, I’m fortunate in that for the most part, I can speak freely to my gay friends around the U.K., but for those who wanted to thrive and celebrate their sexuality before me, and who grew up feeling the impact of a less-welcoming population towards LGBT+ people, things weren’t as simple and they weren’t afforded my privilege.
In 1967 the Sexual Offences Act was introduced, decriminalising private homosexual acts between two men. However, this didn’t apply to those within the Merchant Navy or Armed Forces. Before this freeing legislation, times were very tough for gay men and even communicating in a way that some would consider provocative, 'homosexual language' would get you into serious bother; in some cases, a maximum sentence of life imprisonment would be put onto gay and bisexual men. And so, as a form of protection, the community took on a new tongue and it was named polari.
This unique disguise is a combination of words from Romani Gypsy, Italian and English rhyming slang and, with an added twist of fabulous campiness, it became the go-to underground language that helped gay men communicate in areas heavily populated by straight people. Before long the language grew and spread throughout the community and made people feel like a part of a valued group and as gay men joined the Navy, polari soon became an international, mostly by gays who had the inside scoop of why and where it came from, but also straight identifying people who thought it was a cool new way of speaking.
After the introduction of the Sexual Offences Act, the need to remain hidden or speak a certain way to protect themselves wasn’t as much of a priority. Therefore, the use of polari started to decline and before long the language was lost by many. However, within the Navy the language still had a purpose and gay men continued to use it up until the 80s.
Leap forward to the 90s and polari as a recognised queer slang started to have a mini-revival, with independent filmmakers including it in their work and gays starting to add it back into their general vocabulary. And, without realising it, even the most heteronormative of people have it in their heads and the words come as natural as everyday English.
I’ve always been someone to hold onto certain elements of history, especially queer history. So for me, polari flows naturally into my everyday conversation, and I see it as a valued addition to my vocabulary. Of course it brings a look of confusion when I tell someone their riah is looking great, or their eek is looking particularly beat that day, but the satisfaction of sharing the words and their meaning is almost as good as saying the words themselves.
As a cherished and important part of our communities history, I try too share it as much as I can with queer people who may not have discovered it before. It’s important that as queer people we remember and reclaim what was once important to us, or elements of history which may have had impact on us in various ways. We should celebrate and embrace it for the value it had to many people who paved the way for our freedom.
So, in the spirit of sharing, here are a few of my personal favourite polari terms.
Aunt nelly fakes: Earrings - What a gorgeous set of aunt nelly fakes.
Bona: Good - Oh, that’s bona news!
Crimper: Hairdresser - The crimper did a great job on my hair.
Drogle: A dress - Just got myself a new drogle
Eek: Face - Look at that eek, he’s gorgeous.
Fantabulosa: Wonderful - This song is fantabulosa!
Gelt: Money - Low on gelt this month.
Husband: Gay lover - My husband is giving me grief.
It: Sexual partnert - It wants us to go out tonight.
Jennifer Justice: Police - Watch out, Jennifer Justice is on the way.
Kaffies: Trousers - Got myself a brand new pair of kaffies for tonight.
Lappers: Hands - These lappers need warming up.
Meshigener: Crazy - What a meshigener party.
Nishta: No or Nothing - Nishta, dear, I'm fine.
Omi-palone: Effeminate man or homosexual - Yes, i'm omi-palone.
Palare pipe: Telephone - Give me a bell on the palare pipe at 6pm.
Queeny: effeminate - Nothing wrong with being a bit queeny.
Riah: Hair - The crimper did a great job of my riah!
Shyckle: Wig - That drag queen’s Shyckle is perfect.
Troll: Walk - Fancy a troll around the park?
Una: One - Just una, thanks
Varda: See or Look - Varda at that hot guy.
Walloper: Dancer - Couldn't take my eyes off that walloper.
X-ray: Observe - I'll x-ray your every move.
Yews: Eyes - My yews are exhausted.
Zhoosh: Style your hair - Just need to zhoosh my hair and i'll be ready.
Now, darling, grab your Fantabulosa smellie, mince around and cackle these bona phrases!