Mind your language

The small world of Polari

23 January 2021

9:00 AM

23 January 2021

9:00 AM

In discussing the German low-life cant called Rotwelsch, Mark Glanville (Books, 9 January) referred in passing to Polari, ‘the language of gay English subculture’, being used ‘by members of a marginalised group to converse without being understood by outsiders’.

I’ve never been convinced by this description of Polari. Undercover policemen in Soho before 1967 may not have been the sharpest knives in the drawer, but they did share the speech of those among whom they moved. Polari, or Parlyare, was a loosely coherent slang drawing on Italian, Yiddish, back slang, rhyming slang and perhaps Romany. This slang vocabulary was familiar to fairground people, publicans, criminals, theatre folk and the homosexuals among them.

Polari had no syntax of its own, just a limited lexicon. Its identification with homosexuals was cemented by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams as Julian and Sandy on Round the Horne, on BBC radio 1965-8, either side of the decriminalisation of homosexual acts. The sketches were the work of Barry Took and Marty Feldman, but even in real life Polari was often deployed jocularly.

A familiar Polari word eek means ‘face’ as an abbreviation of ecaf, which is simple back slang, as riah is for ‘hair’. Gun is an abbreviation of ganef, a word in Yiddish also found in Rotwelsch, borrowed from Hebrew gannabh, thief.

Letty, a ‘lodging’, is from Italian letto, ‘bed’. Khazi, lavatory, is also from Italian (casa), made to look Indian by the spelling. Frank Norman, a fund of low-life slang from the 1950s, wrote of doing ‘skippers in the khazi’, meaning sleeping in the public lavatory. Scarperderives from Italian scappare, reinforced by Cockney rhyming slang scapa, ‘go’, from Scapa Flow. Among Polari words of unknown origins are palone, ‘woman’, along with naff and zhuzh (‘smartening up’, probably not as some suggest from Romany yuzho, ‘clean’).

Words claimed for Polari but taken from wider slang include bevvy, gelt, drag, hoofer, Irish(Irish jig = ‘wig’), manky, rozzer and slap(‘make-up’). All in all, Polari is quite a small world.

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