Colin Richardson wrote in The Guardian of 17.01.05:
“Nish the chat and pin back your aunt nells; it’s time to brush up your polari. Unless, that is, you enjoy being terminally naff.
Polari, the gay slang which faded away with the decriminalisation of male homosexuality and the advent of gay liberation, is making a comeback. Madame Jo Jo’s, the Soho cabaret venue which specialises in drag spectaculars, has adopted polari as its lingua franca. A list of words and phrases, chosen by linguistics lecturer and polari expert Dr Paul Baker, has been given to staff for them to use in their conversations with each other and with the punters.
It makes sense. Polari is, or was, a sort of gay Esperanto, a weird amalgam of Yiddish, Italian, Spanish, Occitan (a hybrid of Spanish and French), Cant (the secret language of thieves and outlaws), Romany, Cockney rhyming slang, backslang and, well, lingua franca (the old pidgin language of Mediterranean traders and seafarers).
Many polari words are recognisable: aqua, manjaree, vada, bona, omi, even polari itself. You can probably guess at their meanings: water, food or to eat, look or see, good, man, and talk. Anyone who speaks Portuguese, Spanish, French or Italian will be similarly well-placed. And have you ever met a waiter, bartender or, indeed, drag queen, who hails from Rio or Madrid, Paris or Rome? Exactly.
As Paris Tkaczyk, owner of Madame Jo Jo’s, puts it: “By offering staff the option of learning and using Polari to refer to familiar aspects and objects of their work, we are offering a fun, yet practical, way of bridging any language gaps, as well as celebrating the cultural history and diversity of Soho.”
But there’s more to this than good employment practice. It also represents yet another instance of the mainstreaming of gay culture, another poke in the ogle for those who deny that there is or ever was such a thing as gay culture, and a further rehabilitation of camp.
Polari flourished in the difficult years between the trial of Oscar Wilde and the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. It was a kind of code, which enabled one gay man to identify another, allowed them to express themselves publicly without fear of arrest or reprisal and provided a vocabulary for talking about gay sex and sexuality.
In the latter half of the 1960s, polari burst out of the closet. The radio comedy sketch show, Round the Horne, introduced two regular characters, Julian and Sandy, who spoke a version of polari. Millions tuned in each week to hear the show’s avuncular host, Kenneth Horne (whose very name was a gift to the double of entendre), visit some new enterprise, which was invariably called Bona something or another: Bona Guest House, Bona Caterers, Bona Ballet, you get the picture.
The Bona traders were two out-of-work actors, played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams, themselves gay and so able to squeeze the most out of every line:
“Oh hello, I’m Julian and this is my friend, Sandy.”
“Why, it’s Mr Horne. How bona to vada your dolly old eek again.”
To most listeners, this must have been gibberish, albeit saucy, funny gibberish. But if you listen carefully to recordings of the show, you can tell that a small proportion of the studio audience understood exactly what was going on.
Round the Horne was both polari’s apotheosis and its last hurrah. As the 1970s ground on, gay men became increasingly embarrassed by any association with limp-wristed camp. While Marc Bolan and David Bowie were applying manly mascara, gay men were growing moustaches and dressing like cowboys. The gay clone look sought to banish visions of Julian and Sandy, Mr Humphries and Larry Grayson. Poor Kenneth Williams became an outcast among his own kind, as his diaries bitterly relate.
The Madame Jo Jo’s story shows how far we have come since then. In recent years, polari has slowly been building up a new head of steam. Academic studies have flourished. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have even published a polari translation of the Bible on the internet (www.thesisters.demon.).
A stage version of Round the Horne became a big hit last year; and this time round, everyone’s in on the joke. Many polari words – cod, naff, zhoosh, drag, dish and trade, for instance – are already in common usage. Even chav, the current word of the moment, has a connection to polari. The Romany word chavvie, or child, is also part of the polari lexicon.
So now you know. You’ve been talking a little queer all along. Isn’t that fantabulosa?
Glossary: troll back, to return; nish, no more; aunt nells, ears; naff, straight, tasteless; ogle, eye; dolly, nice, pleasant; eek , face – a contraction of the backslang ecaf; cod , bad, fake; zhoosh, to titivate; drag, clothing, a special outfit; dish, attractive, to gossip or bum; trade, sexual partner; colin, horn, erection; fantabulosa, fantabulosa.
· Colin Richardson is a former editor of Gay Times.