While it is unlikely that the utterance of a phrase like, “with my ogles, I varda one hot dish of chicken…he’s one hell of an omi-polone hoofer”, would be met by anything other than confused, blank stares today, this was not always the case. In fact, responses might have ranged from furrowed brows to undone trousers in 1960’s Britain, as the ability to comprehend what appeared to be a distinctly English-adjacent language spoke volumes about one’s social status. The language, known as Polari, was weaponized by gay men1 during a time of immense social and legal persecution surrounding homosexuality and was used in large part by those who sought sex and companionship without drawing potentially hostile attention. Enabling speakers to quickly identify those who were “in the know”, Polari operated as a form of code-speaking whose linguistic exclusivity afforded a degree of safety during an era of uncertainty.
However, the language’s intentionally narrow scale and scope has left many to wonder about its social implications. Some, for example, have taken to interpersonal analyses and examined how Polari became an undeniable hallmark of gay identity during the period of its use (Kulick, 2000; Raban, 1973). Studying the complex interplay between language, performance, affect, and identity, scholars have raised important questions about the larger effect that Polari has had on the stereotypical gay identity. Other scholars have taken more structural approaches and inquired about the social dynamics informing the processes of both exclusion and acceptance, as well as about the contexts affecting Polari’s use (Livia & Hall, 1997; Johnstone, 1997). On both sides of this debate, questions have been raised as to the form and function of “Gayspeak”2 and its modern manifestations. Despite the appearance of conversation, dialogue has remained sparse, and scholars on each side have failed to place their work relative to others, resulting in countless crucially important questions about the nature of language and power remaining without adequate answer.
For years, these questions have guided the inquiries of linguists, historians, anthropologists, and those studying media and popular culture. Despite the relative preponderance of conversation, little has been said about Polari as a language system (Baker, 2002, p. 39). That is, few have viewed Polari, in Baker’s words, as encompassing both linguistic items and precipitating “social contexts, mores, and motivations” (2002, p. 39). It is for this reason that scholars have failed to reach consensus about the effectiveness of the language and the ultimate impact that it had on non-normative genders and sexualities. An investigation of Polari thus requires that one conceive of the language as enmeshed within broader networks of power and control; one must conceptualize language itself as being shaped by an individual’s relationship to broader sociopolitical institutions. Viewed under this more holistic framework, Polari emerges as a historical artifact that was just as much about survival as it was sex.
A view of Polari that takes into account the social and political circumstances of its emergence suggests that it was a useful tactic in navigating oppressive conditions. I explore the ways in which the coded nature of Polari enabled speakers to “go undercover” and avoid discrimination. More importantly, I consider the degree to which Polari helped to normalize certain aspects of the gay identity and argue that its secrecy played a crucial role in the creation of a gay subculture. An essential element of “queer performativity”, Polari subverted gendered and sexual norms, while allowing for the expression of identity in ways that would have been otherwise suppressed given the circumstances.
This project will therefore contribute to both lay and intellectual understandings of gay identity and its performative enactment. Drawing on the work of political and social theorist Judith Butler, my work sheds light on how stereotypes are both done and undone and how language itself might be a tool used by and against dominant power structures. I supplement historical and archival work with my own primary research in order to better understand the lasting effects of this “forgotten” language. This provides sociolinguistic and behavioral insight into action in spite of repressive circumstances. It is in this way that this project unearths how language itself might be used for mobilization, solidarity, and survival.
The Binnie-Hale of Brighton Pier3 : Polari and its History
As could be expected from a language with secrecy as its intent, not much is known about Polari’s emergence, or as Polari-speakers might say, the “Binnie-Hale” of “Brighton Pier” (“The Story of Queers”). However, Polari’s unique linguistic items provide immense insight into the language’s far deeper historical origins. Examining the language’s grammar, syntax, and lexicon, linguists have determined that Polari was influenced by a diverse set of languages, subcultures, and dialects. It is, as Dr. Ian Hancock argues, a lingua franca4 that blends together Romani, Yiddish, Italian, backslang, cant, and Cockney rhyming slang5 (Hancock, 1984; Lucas, 1997). A “linguistic mongrel”, Polari’s most nascent form was spoken by the discontents of Elizabethan society—namely, travelers, vagrants, and thieves (Quinion, 1984). The language was later picked up by performers and members of the traveling circus, who, due to their social and political disenfranchisement, added to the language a great bit of slang as well as a general contempt of political institutions (Burke, 1995). The language underwent several iterations, each time evolving in both form and function, before it was eventually passed on to gay men, drag queens, and lesbians during the latter half of the twentieth century (Baker, 2002). In fact, it is for this reason that some might argue that Polari was more of an anti-language than a language at all, as it was produced by and for the social periphery, and it enabled the containment of a unique social class (Halliday, 1976).
Due in large part to the mid-century surge of arrests associated with homosexuality (Halsey, 1972, p. 533), there was increased need for secrecy in the gay community, and Polari gained newfound attention. Polari was first popularized on the radio show, Round the Horne, which featured two effeminate male leads, named Julian and Sandy. Every Sunday afternoon, the duo parodied popular culture, performed musicals and sketch comedy, and in many ways, portrayed what is traditionally thought of as “camp” culture6. The sassy pair spoke in a variant of Polari taught to them by the urban theater community in London, and their performance drew on stereotypes of gay men during the period. Fleeing and criticizing the law, gossiping incessantly, and cloaking their language in layers of euphemisms, Julian and Sandy were “implicitly gay”. Despite the rigidity of gendered and sexual norms during the period, they received wild support across demographics (Meyer, 1994). However, it is precisely because of these norms that many gay men were driven to live in secrecy, and it is no surprise then that they mimicked the show’s use of Polari to communicate. Round the Horne, as well as popular renderings more broadly, depicted Julian and Sandy in ways that exaggerated their femininity, as demonstrated in Figure 1. In fact, one can almost imagine them insulting someone’s dreadfully “naff riah”, flamboyantly discussing the season’s latest fashion trends, or gesticulating wildly. This simultaneously provided comedic relief for its heterosexual listeners and social support for its homosexual ones. While it was interpreted as a light-hearted source of humor to some, to others it acted as a model for covert homosexual comportment.
Figure 1. Cover of the 1976 Julian and Sandy LP.
Barneying Betty Bracelets7 : The Subversive Potential of Polari
While constantly changing, Polari and its attendant sense of secrecy enabled individuals to safely navigate the heteronormativity of daily life. Moreover, it exacted an institutional critique through what some might call the “Barneying of Betty Bracelets” or simply “fighting the police”. This quiet rebellion occurred in tandem with the increased criminalization of homosexuality in Britain and was partially the result of a trend toward urbanization, which put gay men into unprecedented proximity (Mellor, 1983). Despite their physical closeness, the fear of repercussions forced many to remain in hiding (Baker, 2002). During a time when men were forced to find each other in increasingly undetectable ways (Baker, 2002), Polari became an answer, as it was familiar to a large number of homosexual men who listened to Round the Horne, and its coded nature enabled them to converse in ways that were unintelligible to outsiders (Barrett, 2017). The ability to “drop in a few words” and see if “they were picked up” by the listener enabled gay men to safely and secretly find others who were “in the know” (Leap, 1996, p. 49). Because of the language’s exclusive nature, many gay men gained a new sense of freedom, as they were able to find each other for sex or companionship without fear (Hancock, 1984; Barrett, 2017).
However, gay men met for much more than just casual sex. In fact, many used Polari as a tool to coalesce, forming independent networks of both platonic and sexual relationships. Beyond gay bars, clubs, and stores in the “urban underworld”, Polari dramatically widened the scope of the community-building effort and connected many with an otherwise non-existent sub-cultural group (Baker, 2002). Because it was only passed via word of mouth, the language was treated as a rite of passage for new members of the gay community, and it acted as a bridge for many to join the larger in-group (Brougham & Baker, 2016). Similar to Dr. Ben Rampton’s concept of “crossing”, this form of initiation dually acted to “enculturate” as well as enable movement across otherwise unmalleable social boundaries (Rampton, 1995). Thus, Polari acted as a conduit for the establishment of what anthropologists and ethnographers have termed fictive kin8 ; it made it possible to share strategies and secrets for surviving life in the urban metropolis (Allen, 2011). For example, one might share information about a new joint opening up downtown, advance knowledge of an impending police raid, or simple advice and, in doing so, aid in the collective continuance of the community. Polari thus became an essential tool by which individuals were able to eschew institutionalized social norms and instead operate in accordance with their own wants and needs.
It is for this reason that the “code-switching” afforded to Polari speakers more broadly acted as a means of institutional defiance that both facilitated and encouraged criminal homosexual acts in subtle ways. The language enabled what was considered to be taboo by twentieth century British society, instead choosing to affirm an otherwise deviant and subjugated identity. For this reason, Rodgers contends that Polari and gay slang more generally housed the potential to both promote group cohesion as well as “constitute a form of social protest” (Rodgers, 1972, p. 146). Acting in ways incongruous to the social order enabled Polari speakers to decry the stigmatization of homosexuality, constantly renegotiating their interactions with others and the state.
By making more prevalent what had for so long been treated as a crime or disease, Polari was a subversive act that enabled individuals to normalize a sub-cultural group. Informing much of gay subculture during the period, Polari was an essential element in the development of a “camp” gay identity (Lucas, 1997). While the language’s lexicon was ever-evolving in order to stay one step ahead, many of its iconic words and phrases were either sexually explicit or derisive of the police, who had come to be made fun of as an act of resistance. Calling police officers who sought to arrest them names like “Hilda Handcuffs” and “Betty Bracelets”, Polari speakers used a humorous and playful form of joking to enact more subversive social critiques. Speaking dismissively was one means of inverting repressive conditions, as it turned stigma into something both beautiful and defiant. The resulting “camp” acted as a “cultural economy” that served to “challenge…legitimate definitions of taste and sexuality” (Ross, 1993, p. 74). As a result, Polari was a way by which individuals were able to refuse the imposition of the label of victim or criminal and instead redefine what it meant to be a gay man.
While Polari has been widely lauded for bringing with it this new sense of representation for the gay community, some have critiqued it as going “too far” and stereotyping the gay male identity. By emphasizing aspects of what Leap suggests is colloquially thought of as “women’s language”, Polari represented a departure from the gendered linguistic norms that existed in Britain at the time (Leap, 1996, p. xiv). Indeed, the politics of “turn taking, narrative style, cohesion, and avoidance of interruptions” inverted expectations of language use, ultimately informing gay culture more broadly and allowing men to express themselves with a newfound sense of freedom (Leap, 1996, p. xiv). As Burton demonstrates, the majority of men who spoke Polari attempted to imitate the speaking style of Julian and Sandy and thus acted in similarly effeminate ways (Baker, 2002; Burton, 1979). Popular understandings of Polari, then, commonly associated the language with both femininity and a sense of humor (Baker, 2002).
It is with this association in mind that sociolinguistic scholar Rusty Barrett argues that despite Polari bringing representation to an otherwise subjugated identity, it did so only for a “specific type of individual within that category” (Barrett, 2017, p. 119). With its lexical emphasis on sexual innuendo and its popular “campy” performance, Polari privileged certain gay identities by “prototyping” still-salient aspects of gay culture (Whittle, 1994). Some scholars argue that this ultimately ended in the “self-ghettoization” of the gay community by making the distinction between gay and straight evident during a time when integration was still high on the revolutionary agenda (Cox and Fay, 1994). While it is widely acknowledged that Polari had a crucial role in normalizing the gay identity, various scholars argue that it did so in an exclusive way by prioritizing certain expressions of gender and sexuality at the expense of others.
I instead argue that Polari played an essential role in the normalization of the gay identity by allowing individuals to navigate gay performance and culture. Even though little has been written about Polari specifically, existing literature gives credence to the semiotic potential inherent to broader systems of camp and Gayspeak (Leap, 1996). In other words, the language’s use in and of itself rechoreographed social relations by experimenting with the social expectations surrounding the body and performance. In his analysis of gay culture, language, and literature, Scott Long discerns that these expressions were indeed a “moral activity” whose playfulness and sense of humor took “on the burden of society’s contradictions” (1993, p. 90). Similarly, Polari speakers parodied their own marginalized social status by both bringing attention to their exclusion and re-narrativizing it to “reconstruct reality” on their own terms through irony and their own self-deprecation (Baker, 2002, p. 76). By the same token, Barrett argues that such instances of gay dialogue are transformative for the listener as well, concluding that Gayspeak denaturalizes the easy binary between essentially feminine and masculine forms of language (2017). It forces the listener to reconceptualize the relationships between language, biological sex, and gender performance (Barrett, 2017). For this reason, Polari remained an essential factor in the renegotiation of gay identity and its expression for both the speaker and the listener.
This also enabled individuals to renegotiate otherwise contested identities on the discursive level. Occupying what Judith Butler has termed a “performativity” of queerness, I theorize that Polari upends the social expectations of gender expression that are often held without question (Butler, 2014; Leap, p. 161). In her analysis of gender and political theory, Butler argued performativity, or “the act that one does, the act that one performs”, is “an act that’s been going on before one arrived on the scene” (Butler, 1988, p. 277). She argues that repeated stylization of the body and one’s outside interactions constitute performances and that these could be used in support of or opposition to hegemonic thought (Butler, 1988). Similarly, via both the “displacement of expectations” and the “disruption of the ordinary”, Polari, in many ways, spoke gay space into being and undid the very foundations for hegemonic thought (Butler, 2014).
In this way, Polari came to both inform and make accessible the gay subcultures of the era and enabled the coalescence of new individuals and values. It represented a form of symbolic protest against heteronormativity, questioning the inflexibility of normative social categories (Leap, 1996, p. 162). “Connecting the self, sexuality, and power”, Polari, can then be seen as “polyvocal” in that it emanates from and has effects on several distinct sources (Leap, 1996, p. 162). It is an arrangement whose enactment creates “local forms of normativity” alongside pockets of new social meaning, both of which seek to redefine the traditional world order (Barrett, 2017, p. 225). Polari as a language system thus represented far more than mere sexual euphemism and street innuendo. Instead, it was a “performative assertion” (Barrett, 2017, p. 225) that questioned the gendered assumptions that underlie social and cultural maxims as well as a statement about gay life and society.
Nishta-Nanto that!9 : Remembering Polari
Although a once well-kept secret, Polari has remained all but forgotten today. Whether manifest in discourse between gay individuals on the internet, or in the existence of entire disciplines, the influence of Polari has been recognized by both linguists and non-linguists alike. Despite its implications on understandings of language, gender, sexuality, and performance more broadly, Polari has perhaps remained most important for revealing the relationships between identity and culture.
Polari thus appears as a means by which individuals were able to renegotiate what it meant to be gay for both themselves and for their communities. By “switching codes”, gay men were able to rechoreograph the normative world order, all the while redefining the language and how it was used. Equally true, though, and often unnoticed is the inverse. That is, the language and its use came to reflect the lives of gay men, guiding their interactions with others and the world more broadly in processes not unlike those that persist today.
And thus, when we conceive of Polari and other forms of code-speak, we are conceiving of much more than a mere form of communication. We are conceiving of social re-scripting, of survival strategies, and of identity creation and re-creation. We are conceiving of language as an instrument with the power to captivate, to collectivize, to constrain, and to construct.
And yet we are also conceiving of both a mirror and a guide for social progress, offering immense insight into survival through the bona, the naff, and the meese.10
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Allen, K., Blieszner, R., & Roberto, K. (2011). Perspectives on Extended Family and Fictive Kin in the Later Years: Strategies and Meanings of Kin Reinterpretation. Journal of Family Issues. 32(9), 1156–1177.
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Barrett, Rusty. (2017). From Drag Queens to Leathermen: Language, Gender, and Gay Male Subcultures. London and New York: Oxford University Press.
Brougham, W. & Baker, P. (2016, November 18). Polari – The Story of Britain’s Gay Slang. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1-rX_u5_wE
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1 While there is undoubted difficulty in ascribing a single definition to this term, I use “gay” most generally to refer to homosexually-identified men.
2 This is a term used by scholars to refer broadly to the discourses between homosexually-identifying individuals
3 According to Alywin’s Load of Cockney Cobblers, this Polari translates roughly to: “A story about queers” (Alywin, 1973).
4 Lingua franca is a term widely used by linguists and scholars to describe a language that can be mutually-perceived by two parties speaking different languages. Some argue that the relationship between the romance languages makes them a European lingua franca.
5 Backslang transforms normal English by reading the individual letters of words backwards – i.e. “hair” becomes “riah”. Cant is the slang associated with thieves, vagrants, and criminals, and Cockney rhyming slang is a humorous form of language based on English rhyme and rhythm.
6 While camp itself is a tradition with a storied history, it is often referred to as the cultural emphasis on humor, sass, and femininity with regard to homosexuality.
7 According to Alywin’s Load of Cockney Cobblers, this translates roughly to: “Fighting the Police” (Alywin, 1973).
8 This term is used by sociologists and anthropologists to describe familial relationships that are not dependent on blood-based ties.
9 According to the Polari Dictionary, this phrase translates roughly to: “Don’t forget that!” (Denning, 2007).
10 According to the Polari Dictionary, this phrase translates roughly to: “The good, the bad, and the ugly” (Denning, 2007).