LGBTQIA+ History: Polari

Freddie Parker on 29 July 2022
Kenneth Williams, who used Polari as innuendo on the radio

Queer people have existed throughout history in the face of discriminatory legislation. Here’s one way they survived when existence was illegal.

What is Polari?

Formed from a mix of Italianate and Romani words, cockney rhyming slang, sailing slang, and thieves’ cant, Polari is a cant used among sailors, pirates, sex workers, and theatre professionals from the eighteenth century. 

Cant - dialect within a group often used to mislead or misdirect those outside of the group.

The prevalence of gay men as theatre workers meant that Polari was adopted by them as a secret language to avoid being arrested. In the UK, homosexuality was illegal until 1967, so they needed a way of communicating and organising that was undetectable. 

Common Polari phrases

  • Acdc, bibi - Bisexual
  • Alamo! - They’re attractive!
  • Aunt nell! - Listen!
  • Barney - A fight
  • Bat, batts - Shoes
  • Bona - Good
  • Charver - Sexual intercourse
  • Dolly - Nice, pretty
  • Eek, eke - Face
  • Jubes - Breasts
  • Khazi - Toilet
  • Naff - Awful, dull, hetero
  • Rough trade - A potentially dangerous sex partner
  • Zhoosh - To style or jazz up

“So bona to vada...oh you! Your lovely eek and your lovely riah.” - So good to see...oh you! Your lovely face and your lovely hair.

“I’ve nanti dinarly; park me some handbag for another buvare.” - I’ve got no money. Give me some money for another drink.

“Everyone thinks that auntie is a total fruit, but her gildy clobber makes me think she’s a duchess.” - Everyone thinks that older gay man over there is a total old queen, but his nice clothes make me think he’s a rich gay man.

How has Polari affected modern slang?

Many words prevalent in gay culture that then seeped into the mainstream originated from Polari. They obviously often weren’t new words but were first used in the way that we do today by those speaking Polari

  • Camp - meaning an effeminate man in Polari. Now has evolved to refer to anything seen as vibrant and/or gay.
  • Bevvy - abbreviation of beverage. 
  • Cottaging - the act of seeking or having sex in public toilets.
  • Fruit - a gay man. Has also evolved into ‘fruity’, meaning a bit gay.
  • Ogle - to look at or pine for.
  • Trade - made mainstream famous by Rupaul’s Drag Race.
  • Zhoosh - just zhoosh your riah (hair) up for the weekend.

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Cover image courtesy of the BBC.

Freddie Parker
Freddie Parker on 29 July 2022