Yesterday, I posted about the word swazzle. I was led to that from the Wikipedia article about Polari:

Polari […] is a form of cant slang used in Britain by some actors, circus and fairground showmen, professional wrestlers, merchant navy sailors, criminals, prostitutes, and the gay subculture. There is some debate about its origins, but it can be traced back to at least the 19th century and possibly the 16th century. There is a long-standing connection with Punch and Judy street puppet performers who traditionally used Polari to converse.”

That page also includes a brief Polari glossary, and more info about its origins and use:

Polari is a mixture of Romance (Italian or Mediterranean Lingua Franca), Romani, London slang, backslang, rhyming slang, sailor slang, and thieves' cant. Later it expanded to contain words from the Yiddish language and from 1960s drug subculture slang. It was a constantly developing form of language, with a small core lexicon of about 20 words … and over 500 other lesser known words.

Polari was used in London fishmarkets, the theatre, fairgrounds and circuses, hence the many borrowings from Romani. 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.

The almost identical Parlyaree has been spoken in fairgrounds since at least the seventeenth century and continues to be used by show travellers in England and Scotland.

3 Responses to “Polari”

  1. -Ed.

    The wikipedia entry for Polari always leads me to the Julian and Sandy radio sketches. I’m terribly fond of them, but of course the central joke is simply that Julian and Sandy are gay. There are individual jokes and dreadful puns, but really, it’s just that our host keeps running into these two ponces. The whole thing only works within the context of a viciously homophobic society. Which, of course, is the same one I grew up in, so I’m pretty much the target audience, there, ducky, aren’t I just… One of the best lines is from the lawyer one, when Julian or Sandy says “we’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most of our time”… Anyway, I’ve got complex thoughts about Julian and Sandy, I have. And here’s a link to the bookshop one, where they do the “Seven Ages of Omi”: https://youtu.be/OZL4rTEWU5c

    And also, talking about context, here’s a link to a shortish documentary video that talks about different attitudes toward the ‘coded’ language, over time and other angles.

    And a recent film in Polari that has some clips in that documentary:

    That one is somewhat disturbing, and again is incomprehensible (I mean, in addition to the language) outside the context of a viciously, often violently homophobic society.


  2. -Ed.

    OK, been listening to Julian and Sandy much of the day and have to pass along the one from their television studio, where they were going to produce a series where they would portray Batomi and Robin fighting archcriminals… well, relatively arch.


    • -Ed.

      Can y’all stand another? The one where they run a dude ranch has a line where Sandy says “It’s so important that men like ourselves come out… into the open… spaces, the great outdoors.”

      It also has one of my favorite lines I’ve heard yet, when they are discussing how they model themselves after actual figures of the wild west:
      Horne: And Julian, who are you modeling yourself after?
      Julian: Bill Hickok.
      [incredibly long pause]
      Horne: …Wild?



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