Today, many of the largest cities in the western world boast a popular and vibrant LGBTQ scene, but it wasn’t so long ago that those who considered themselves members of that community had to socialize in secret. In the mid-20th century, homosexuality was illegal in the US and UK, and generally not accepted by society.
Yes, there were pubs and restaurants that were known to be “gay-friendly”, but being out and proud in that time period was dangerous. Hate crimes against members of the LGBTQ community were common, and it would still be a long time before homosexuality would no longer be classified as a mental health disorder.
Therefore, in order to maintain some protection, gay men, in particular, took to using a secret language to talk among themselves. It was a sort of code to know who was in the gay community and who was not.
The language was called Polari and was used to ensure that unknown members of the public wouldn’t overhear a conversation between two gay men. After all, something as simple as one man telling another he likes the look of his biceps could be cause for violence back then.
It’s hard to believe such a harmless compliment would be a dangerous thing to say in public, but times were different back then, even if it wasn’t really so long ago. The Polari language also has its roots in other marginalized groups, including Romani and several types of slang.
Check out the video below to see a short film detailing how Polari would have be used in a public space:
Backslang, sailor slang, rhyming slang, Yiddish, 1960s drug culture, and thieves also lent to the lexicon. It was frequently used in fairgrounds, theatres, and circuses, which is where the Romani influence comes from.
However, since many gay men took part in the theatre scene in London, the language also took hold in the LGBTQ community. It was also used in the British Merchant Navy, where many gay men worked as entertainers and wait staff. Polari protected their sexual identities from police and hostile homophobes.
While Polari is made up of mostly slang, it does have a small core of about 20 well-known words. These include “bona”, which means “good”, “naff”, which means “bad”, and “trade”, which refers to sex. In fact, early Polari can actually be traced back to fairs and entertainment venues as far back as the 1600s.
While Polari may have begun to be recognized as a language used within the gay community, it still protected these men by disguising the exact content of what they might be discussing. For example, two men in a taxi could openly flirt without the driver knowing what was happening.
“It was much easier because they didn’t know what you talking about. You’d just say ‘bona dish’ [great butt] and all that,” drag queen and activist Bette Bourne said in a 2014 interview with Stuart Feather.
“And especially if it was sexual, you didn’t want them to know what you were talking about. You just slipped into it without thinking,” added Bourne, who learned and used Polari as a young gay man growing up in the 1960s.
However, the 1960s also saw the decline of Polari. The BBC radio show Round the Horne used Polari to imply specific characters’ homosexuality and therefore brought the secret language mainstream. It was being broadcast into British households that otherwise would not have been around its use.
Polari briefly became very popular, but this dismantled its exclusivity and no longer made it the secret coded language it once was. That being said, Round the Horne also allowed gay culture to become mainstream, and audiences were seeing gay characters interact without being the butt of the joke.
Plus, the use of Polari allowed for jokes to be made that otherwise would not have been allowed to be broadcast had they been spoken in English. Polari speakers could understand more of the show and lines were written specifically for their enjoyment.
Polari also declined in use because homosexuality was decriminalized in England in 1967 and the younger men in the gay community who were coming out in the 1970s wanted to be “out” and proud. They saw Polari as a means to be kept a secret and not something that would help lead to acceptance.
Paul Baker, a linguistic researcher explained this change in the culture in the recent documentary Polari – A Short Documentary About the Lost Language of Gay Men. He says the next generation of gay men had different values than those who came before them
“The younger gay men were kind of coming out in the ’70s and they had different values. They [didn’t] want to be associated with secrecy and hiding. Instead, there are these concepts like gay pride and gay liberation and coming out. And Polari is seen as to the detriment of those things,” he said.
Polari is no longer widely used in the LGBTQ community although several groups such as the Polari Literary Salon have worked to preserve the language. Its past significance should not be forgotten and it remains an important part of the of LGBTQ cultural history.
However, Polari is not entirely out of use as many phrases from the language have worked their way into modern English. These words are used every day yet few people know their actual origins. Words like kiki, drag, and camp were all originally from the Polari language.
For example, camp, which today refers to something tacky or overly theatrical, originally meant to reference an overly theatrical or exaggerated display of mannerisms from the opposite sex. Likewise, kiki, which was popularized in by the musical group Scissor Sisters, means a gathering of friends to chit-chat.
Yet, the word stems from Latino gay culture and is an onomatopoeia for laughter, which would happen amongst a gathering of friends having a gossip session.
So perhaps next time you see a drag queen, or say that your friend’s outfit is camp, or say, “Let’s have a kiki”, know that the origins of those words were once from a secret language used to protect gay men in a time when being who you were wasn’t always accepted.