Polari: Tracking Societal Changes Through Language


A separate “in-group” language can be vital to marginalized individuals’ survival. TALK, in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Fucking A, and Nüshu are both forms of communication used by women as a way to communicate with one another in a society that excludes or oppresses them. Polari, a language used by sailors, criminals, prostitutes, people in show business and then adopted by the gay subculture (predominantly gay men), dates back to the 19th century. If you know the word “naff”, you know at least one term in Polari. Paul Baker, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Lancaster and author of Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men graciously took time to answer a few questions about Polari.

Polari took its words from a lot of different sources. What does it say about the people who were using it?

I think it suggests that Polari speakers had intersections with other communities and identities – sailors, beggars, buskers, prostitutes, entertainers, Jewish communities, drug users. They may have held some of those identities as well as being gay, or they may have had connections with people from those communities. One of the things about all the different overlapping groups who used language which contributed to Polari in some way is that they were all on the margins of mainstream society in some way. Either they were people who were stigmatised or criminalised or they spent large amounts of time in unfamiliar locations where they had to establish new roots.

In the UK, many people are familiar with a few words of Polari (although they might not know them to be Polari terms). As Polari was integrated into the mainstream, did it lose its power?

Theoretically yes, but so far only a very small number of Polari terms have been integrated into mainstream use and it’s now pretty much an outdated form of language so it’s doubtful any more terms would find their way into English. In the late 1960s, the Julian and Sandy sketches did expose a very large mainstream radio-listening audience to Polari, who were familiarised with a relatively small number (probably around 20) Polari words. However, these words didn’t really get integrated into the mainstream. Instead, people were exposed to Polari as a concept – the idea that gay people had a secret language, – rather than the specifics of it – and that’s one of the factors which helped in its demise.

Polari was developed through a very urgent need to communicate and be safe whilst doing so when homosexuality was outlawed. Why did its use decline in the 60s? Although homosexuality was decriminalized, it was still very much a societal taboo. 

There are several factors for this. First, the popularity of Julian and Sandy as mentioned above meant that people became aware that there was something called Polari and it was used by gay people, so it was less easy to use it to disguise your sexual identity in public places. It was also starting to be seen as a bit dated by the 1960s – it most likely had peaked in popularity in the early 1950s when society was going through an especially oppressive period. So by the late 1960s it was already starting to be associated with older gay men, and to an extent it fell victim to ageism – younger gay men were starting to view it as old fashioned and an “old man” thing. On top of that, partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 started to remove the need for as much secrecy (despite the fact that police prosecutions didn’t stop in 1967). But there was a social change afoot, younger people identifying more with Gay Liberation politics in the late 60s and early 70s, and this movement rejected the older models of homosexuality, especially anything linked to camp, which was viewed as negative stereotyping and also offensive to women. Some aspects of Polari were seen as sexist, self-loathing and racist. There was a new subcultural model of homosexuality coming from New York and California, which was more based around the “clone” and appearing macho, and camp identities become a lot less popular. Notably, camp men aren’t seen as attractive sexual partners, whereas in the past, camp men had got into sexual relationships with very butch men (who often did not identity as gay).  I would also suspect that in the 1980s and early 1990s , some Polari speakers would have suffered untimely deaths as a result of AIDS so the opportunity for it to be passed on to new speakers was diminished.

Was the decline of Polari usage a subversive act, in a sense its speakers refusing to be hidden, or was it something entirely different politically?

Some speakers continued to use it in the 1970s as a way of expressing their sexuality – it being part of a very flamboyant visible gay identity which would have involved colourful clothing and wearing make-up as well.

In terms of its overall decline though, I think it can be argued either way. There was an earnestness about the GLF movement and they viewed Polari as a problematic hangover of an oppressed era which they wanted to move away from. On the other hand, it could be argued that in rejecting camp humour (which had been a means of coping with the difficult circumstances gay people had to put up with) and cutting off ties to the people before them who suffered through a very oppressive time, they were throwing the baby out with the bath water. I’ve always thought that it takes a strong confident person to go against gender norms in a public way and take the abuse and social policing that this inevitably brings. It’s ironic that society tends to view effeminate men as weak and very masculine ones as strong, when the reality is closer to the opposite. It feels that from today’s perspective we have a bit more distance and can view Polari a little more affectionately, accepting that it reflected the somewhat narrow-minded attitudes of the time, but that it was also a reflection of the tenacity and sense of humour of the speakers, who refused to give in to the law, the medical profession, the church and the media – if they had done so, there would have been no need for decriminalisation as gay people would have simply lived monogamous lives or fake lives. Today’s British LGBT people should be grateful that they refused to that – and they lived the lives they wanted to. Every time they went to an illicit bar, smiled at someone they fancied in the street, or had a lover to stay over for the night they took a risk. They might not have been marching with placards, but their very existence was an act of political defiance. I owe them the freedoms I enjoy today.

I’m not sure to refer to Polari as a language or slang, by the way…

It’s a slippery thing to define, and it depends who was using it really. Some people were so adept at it that when you hear them use it, it did resemble a language, with a large vocabulary and grammatical nuances which made it different to English. Others used it more like a slang. I’ve referred to it as a “language variety” which covers both types and everything in between.

(the featured image is from the Wellcome Collection’s post about Polari. While looking for images for this post, I came across a Polari app and a great article about Polari on Loudspeaker)

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