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Polari (or alternatively Parlare, Parlary, Palare, Palarie, Palari;[1] from Italian Template:Lang, "to talk") is a form of cant slang used in Britain by actors, circus and fairground showmen, merchant navy sailors, criminals, prostitutes, and the gay subculture. There is some debate about its origins,[2] but it can be traced back to at least the nineteenth century and possibly the sixteenth century.[3] There is a longstanding connection with Punch and Judy street puppet performers who traditionally used Polari to converse.[4]


Polari is a mixture of Romance (Italian[5] or Mediterranean Lingua Franca), London slang,[5] backslang, rhyming slang, sailor slang, and thieves' cant. Later it expanded to contain words from the Yiddish language and from 1960s drug users. It was a constantly developing form of language, with a small core lexicon of about 20 words (including Template:Lang, Template:Lang, Template:Lang, Template:Lang, Template:Lang, Template:Lang, Template:Lang, Template:Lang, Template:Lang, Template:Lang, Template:Lang (Template:Lang), Template:Lang, Template:Lang, Template:Lang), and over 500 other lesser-known words.[6] A Channel 4 television documentary revealed that (in London) there was once an "East End" version which stressed Cockney rhyming slang and a "West End" version which stressed theatrical and Classical influences. There was some interchange between the two.


Polari was used in London fishmarkets, the theatre, fairgrounds and circuses, hence the many borrowings from Romany. As many homosexual men worked in theatrical entertainment it was also used among the gay subculture, at a time when homosexual activity was illegal, to disguise homosexuals from hostile outsiders and undercover policemen. It was also used extensively in the British Merchant Navy, where many gay men joined ocean liners and cruise ships as waiters, stewards and entertainers.[7] On one hand, it would be used as a means of cover to allow gay subjects to be discussed aloud without being understood; on the other hand, it was also used by some, particularly the most visibly camp and effeminate, as a further way of asserting their identity.

The almost identical Parlyaree has been spoken in fairgrounds since at least the seventeenth century[8] and continues to be used by show travellers in England and Scotland. As theatrical booths, circus acts and menageries were once a common part of European fairs it is likely that the roots of Polari/Parlyaree lie in the period before both theatre and circus became independent of the fairgrounds. The Parlyaree spoken on fairgrounds tends to borrow much more from Romany, as well as other languages and argots spoken by travelling people, such as cant and backslang.

Henry Mayhew gave a verbatim account of Polari as part of an interview with a Punch and Judy showman in the 1850s. The discussion he recorded references the arrival of Punch in England, crediting these early shows to a performer from Italy called Porcini (see also John Payne Collier's account of Porsini—Payne Collier calls him Porchini—in Punch and Judy).[9] Mayhew provides the following:Template:Clarify

Punch Talk

"'Template:Lang' means language; name of patter. 'Template:Lang' – no food. 'Template:Lang' – no bed. 'Template:Lang' – no drink. I've 'Template:Lang,' and 'Template:Lang,' and, what's worse, 'Template:Lang.' This is better than the costers' talk, because that ain't no slang and all, and this is a broken Italian, and much higher than the costers' lingo. We know what o'clock it is, besides."[4]

There are additional accounts of particular words that relate to puppet performance: "'Template:Lang' – figures, frame, scenes, properties. 'Template:Lang' – call, or unknown tongue"[4] ("unknown" is a reference to the "swazzle", a voice modifier used by Punch performers, the structure of which was a longstanding trade secret).

Decline in use[edit]

Polari had begun to fall into disuse amongst the gay subculture by the late 1960s. The popularity of the Julian and Sandy characters played by Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick ensured that this secret language became public property,[10] and the gay liberationists of the 1970s viewed it as rather degrading, divisive and politically incorrect as it was often used to gossip about, or criticise, others, as well as to discuss sexual exploits. In addition, the need for a secret subculture code declined with the legalisation of adult homosexual acts in England and Wales in 1967.

In popular culture[edit]

Polari was popularised in the 1960s by camp characters Julian and Sandy in the popular BBC radio show Round the Horne starring Kenneth Horne, Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick.[10]

In the first series of British comedians' panel television series Jokers Wild (1969), comedian Ray Martine is asked to explain the term palone (woman), which he used while telling a joke. In response to the definition, programme presenter Barry Cryer refers to Martine as a bona omi (good man).

In the long running BBC Programme Doctor Who, in the episode "The Carnival of Monsters", a showman, believing The Doctor to be one himself, attempts to converse with him in Polari. The Doctor states that he doesn't understand him. This is uncharacteristic of him, as he has never had problems with language before.

Use today[edit]

File:Bona Togs shop Jersey.jpg
Bona Togs clothes shop

Since the mid-1990s, with the redistribution of tapes and CDs of Round The Horne, and with increasing academic interest, Polari has undergone something of a revival. New words are being invented and updated to refer to more recent cultural concepts.

In 1990, Morrissey titled an album Bona Drag— Polari for "nice outfit" — and the single "Piccadilly Palare".

Also in 1990, comic book writer Grant Morrison created the Polari-speaking character Danny the Street (based on Danny La Rue), a sentient transvestite street, for the comic Doom Patrol.

The 1998 film Velvet Goldmine, which chronicles a fictional retelling of the rise and fall of glam rock, contains a flashback to 1970 in which a group of characters converse in Polari, while their words are humorously subtitled below.

In 2002, two books on Polari were published, Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men, and Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang (both by Paul Baker). Also in 2002, hip hop artist Juha released an album called Polari, with the chorus of the title song written entirely in the slang.

Characters in Will Self's story, Foie Humain, the first part of Liver, use Polari.

Comedians Paul O'Grady, Julian Clary, David Walliams, and Matt Lucas incorporate Polari in their comedy routines, as did Rik Mayall.Template:Citation needed

In 2012, artists Jez Dolan and Joseph Richardson created an iPhone app which makes available the Polari lexicon and comprehensive list of etymologies.[11][12]

Entry into standard English[edit]

A number of words from Polari have entered mainstream slang; some recent examples are:


The Polari word Template:Lang, meaning inferior or tacky, has an uncertain etymology. Michael Quinion states that it is probably from the sixteenth-century Italian word Template:Lang, meaning "a despicable person".[13]

There are a number of folk etymologies, many based on acronyms—Not Available For Fucking, Normal As Fuck—though these are backronyms. More likely etymologies include northern UK dialect naffhead, naffin, or naffy, a simpleton or blockhead; niffy-naffy, inconsequential, stupid, or Scots nyaff, a term of contempt for any unpleasant or objectionable person. An alternative etymology may lie in the Romany Template:Lang, itself rooted in násfalo, meaning ill.

The phrase "naff off" was used euphemistically in place of "fuck off" along with the intensifier "naffing" in Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse (1959).[14]

Usage of "naff" increased in the 1970s when television sitcom Porridge employed it as an alternative to expletives which were not considered broadcastable at the time. [13] Princess Anne famously told a reporter, "Why don't you just naff off" at the Badminton horse trials in April 1982.[15]


"Template:Lang" (Template:IPAc-en, Template:IPAc-en or Template:IPAc-en[16]), meaning to smarten up, style or improve something, has become commonplace more recently, having been used on the TV series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and What Not to Wear. Its initial consonant has led new users to generate variant spellings such as "zoosh", "soozh", "tszuj", "zhoozh" "juushz" etc.Template:Clarify In some pronunciations, the word begins and ends with the same phoneme, the voiced postalveolar fricative, which can be heard as the "s" sound in the words "television" and "pleasure". Others pronounce the final consonant like the "sh" in "push".

Polari glossary[edit]

Template:Unreferenced section Template:Wiktionary category

Word Definition
Template:Lang nearby (from adjacent?)
Template:Lang hot for you/him
Template:Lang listen, hear
Template:Lang ears
Template:Lang earrings
Template:Lang earrings
Template:Lang a fight
Template:Lang the bulge of male genitals through clothes
Template:Lang shoes
Template:Lang bisexual
Template:Lang effeminate or passive gay man
Template:Lang small/little (means "jewel" in French)
Template:Lang pick up
Template:Lang code word for "homosexual"
Template:Lang body
Template:Lang good
Template:Lang goodnight (from Italian - Template:Lang)
Template:Lang wonderful, excellent
Template:Lang pub, this comes from the English word for the closure on a barrel.
Template:Lang masculine; masculine lesbian
Template:Lang a drink (from Italian - Template:Lang or old-fashioned Italian - Template:Lang or Lingua Franca bevire)
Template:Lang talk/gossip
Template:Lang effeminate (possibly from Italian Template:Lang "exaggerate, make stand out")
Template:Lang/Template:Lang hat (from Italian, also Greek - Template:Lang)
Template:Lang toilet, also spelt khazi
Template:Lang/Template:Lang penis (from Italian - Template:Lang)
Template:Lang trousers
charper to search (from Italian - acchiappare - to catch)
charpering omi policeman
charver to shag/a shag (sexual intercourse) (from Italian - chiavare)
chicken young man
clobber clothes
cod naff, vile
cottage a public lavatory used for sexual encounters
cottaging seeking or obtaining sexual encounters in public lavatories
cove friend
crimper hairdresser
dally sweet, kind. Possibly an alternate pronunciation of dolly.
dilly boy a male prostitute
dinari money (Latin denarii was the 'd' of the pre decimal penny)
dish buttocks
dolly pretty, nice, pleasant
dona woman (perhaps from Italian donna or Lingua Franca dona)
dorcas term of endearment, 'one who cares'. The Dorcas Society was a ladies' church association of the nineteenth century, which made clothes for the poor.
drag clothes, esp. women's clothes (prob from Romani — indraka — skirt; also possibly from German - tragen - v. to wear (clothes))
doss bed
ecaf face (backslang)
eek face (abbreviation of ecaf)
ends hair
esong nose (backslang)
fantabulosa fabulous/wonderful
feele/freely/filly child/young (from the Italian figlio, for son)
fruit queen
funt pound
gelt money (Yiddish)
handbag money
hoofer dancer
HP (homy polone) effeminate gay man
jarry food, also mangarie (from Italian mangiare or Lingua Franca mangiaria)
jubes breasts
kaffies trousers
khazi toilet, also spelt carsey
lacoddy body
lallies (lylies) legs
lallie tappers feet
latty/lattie room, house or flat
lills hands
lilly police (Lilly Law)
lyles legs (prob. from "Lisle stockings")
lucoddy body
luppers fingers (Yiddish — lapa — paw)
mangarie food, also jarry (from Italian mangiare or Lingua Franca mangiaria)
martinis hands
measures money
meese plain, ugly (from Yiddish "meeiskeit, in turn from Hebrew מָאוּס repulsive, loathsome, despicable, abominable)
meshigener nutty, crazy, mental (from Yiddish, in turn from Hebrew מְשֻׁגָּע crazy)
metzas money (Italian -mezzi "means, wherewithal")
mince walk (affectedly)
naff awful, dull, hetero
nanti not, no, none (Italian — niente)
national handbag dole, welfare, government financial assistance
ogle look, admire
ogles eyes
oglefakes glasses
omi man (from Romance)
omi-palone effeminate man, or homosexual
onk nose (cf "conk")
orbs eyes
oven mouth (nanti pots in the oven = no teeth in the mouth)
palare pipe telephone ("talk pipe")
palliass back
park, parker give
plate feet; to fellate
palone woman (Italian paglione - "straw mattress", [cf. old Cant "hay-bag" = woman]); also spelled "polony" in Graham Greene's 1938 novel Brighton Rock
palone-omi lesbian
pots teeth
remould sex change
riah/riha hair (backslang)
riah zhoosher hairdresser
rough trade a working class or blue collar sex partner or potential sex partner; a tough, thuggish or potentially violent sex partner
scarper to run off (from Italian scappare, to escape or run away or from rhyming slang Scapa Flow, to go)
schlumph drink
scotch leg (scotch egg=leg)
screech mouth, speak
sharpy policeman (from — charpering omi)
sharpy polone policewoman
shush steal (from client)
shush bag hold-all
shyker/shyckle wig (mutation of the Yiddish sheitel)
slap makeup
so homosexual (e.g. "Is he 'so'?")
stimps legs
stimpcovers stockings, hosiery
strides trousers
strillers piano
switch wig
thews thighs
tober road (a Shelta word, Irish bóthar)
todd (Sloanne) alone
tootsie trade sex between two passive homosexuals (as in: 'I don't do tootsie trade')
trade sex, sex-partner, potential sex-partner
troll to walk about (esp. looking for trade)
vada/varder to see (from Italian — dialect vardare = guardare - look at)

vardered — vardering

vera (lynn) gin
vogue cigarette (from Lingua Franca — fogus - "fire, smoke")
vogueress female smoker
willets breasts
yews (from French "yeux") eyes
zhoosh style hair, tart up, mince
(Romani - "zhouzho" - clean, neat)

zhoosh our riah — style our hair

zhooshy showy

Polari in use[edit]

Omies and palones of the jury, vada well at the eek of the poor ome who stands before you, his lallies trembling.—taken from "Bona Law", a Round The Horne sketch written by Barry Took and Marty Feldman

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

So bona to vada...oh you! Your lovely eek and your lovely riah.—taken from "Piccadilly Palare", a song by Morrissey

Translation: "So good to see...oh you! Your lovely face and your lovely hair."

As feely ommes...we would zhoosh our riah, powder our eeks, climb into our bona new drag, don our batts and troll off to some bona bijou bar. In the bar we would stand around with our sisters, vada the bona cartes on the butch omme ajax who, if we fluttered our ogle riahs at him sweetly, might just troll over to offer a light for the unlit vogue clenched between our teeth.—taken from Parallel Lives, the memoirs of renowned gay journalist Peter Burton

Translation: "As young men...we would style our hair, powder our faces, climb into our great new clothes, don our shoes and wander/walk off to some great little bar. In the bar we would stand around with our gay companions, look at the great genitals on the butch man nearby who, if we fluttered our eyelashes at him sweetly, might just wander/walk over to offer a light for the unlit cigarette clenched between our teeth."

See also[edit]



  • Baker, Paul (2002) Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang. London: Continuum: ISBN 0-8264-5961-7
  • Baker, Paul (2002) Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men. London: Routledge: ISBN 0-415-26180-5
  • Elmes, Simon & Rosen, Michael (2002) Word of Mouth. Oxford University Press: ISBN 0-19-866263-7



External links[edit]

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