The secret language of Polari

Off duty on the Empire Orwell. Paul (top left), 'Belinda' (seated) and a Scottish colleague, taken in Hong Kong, 1956. Courtesy of Paul.

A potted history of Polari

Polari was secretive language widely used by the British gay community from the 1900s to the 1970s. It was based on slang words deriving from a variety of different sources, including rhyming slang, and backslang (spelling words backwards).

In the eighteenth century, it was mainly used in pubs around the London dock area. The language was soon picked up by merchant seafarers and brought back on the ship. From the 1930s to 1970s the language was mostly used in gay pubs, theatre and on merchant ships.

Miss Everton.

The language helped gay men talk to each in front of straight people. It enabled gays to feel like part of an exclusive group. Polari was used in crew shows on the ship and some straight shipmates picked up the language from these shows.

Polari was popularised by Julian and Sandy (played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams) in the 1960s BBC radio comedy show, Round the Horne. In the show, the two played a couple of camp out-of-work actors.

In the 1970s the use of polari started declining. The 1967 sexual offences act made homosexuality legal, so there was less need for a secret form of language. The 1970s gay liberation movement found the language to be old-fashioned and sexist. However, it was still used on ships up until the 1980s. Today polari is experiencing a mini-revival due to recent stage shows of Round the Horne.

Polari in use…

Read a transcript of a recording made by a former seafarer describing how he learnt polari and how he and his colleagues used it on board ships…

Polari is, it’s a mixture of, it’s like a gay language but it’s a mixture of all sorts of things like Italian, gypsy, Jewish, and sort of London all mixed together and gay people sort of adopted it for themselves like a secret language so they could talk to each other in front of straight people so they wouldn’t know what was being said about them or about the situation, you know because you could say ‘oh vada the bona eek on the omi’ and it meant have a look at the nice face on that chap over there, and he wouldn’t know what on earth you were talking about or you might get a wallop, that’s how it started and when I went to sea I knew very little about it and I was, you know intrigued and couldn’t wait to learn it all, and I learnt very quickly and I used it all the time, and I still do actually (laughs) much to the amusement of some of my family and friends, but even they seem to learn it eventually because they ask you ‘what was that you’ve just said’ and they pick it up and they enjoy it for some reason, I don’t know why, people seem to enjoy Polari immensely. The gay people used to talk, gay boys used to talk to each other in gay Polari so people wouldn’t know all they were saying, sometimes in front of the passengers you could just say ‘oh cod palone’, that lady passenger there is not very nice, but we used to say ‘what a cod palone’ and she wouldn’t know what you meant but the old co-worker would, you know. It took me, I don’t know, a few months I suppose to learn it but people do for some reason pick it up very quickly because a friend of ours who was a sea with us, she’s had two little girls, twins, and she uses Polari all the time and the babies are picking it up as well can you believe, her twin girls (laughs). About that time ‘Round the Horne’ came on the radio with Kenneth Williams and ‘my name’s Sandy and this is my friend Julian’ and they used the Polari all the time on the radio so an awful lot of people picked it up but, so it didn’t become important as a secret language any more but people still used it, I did, because people liked it and enjoyed it and even now, I’ve left the sea for 15 years, I still get to talk to people and we still talk in Polari, even straight people, I have a neighbour lives near me, he was at sea with me and he loved listening to all the Polari and he learnt it all and joined in and he would say at the table ‘oh look at the cod eek on that palone’, and even now if he sees me in the street he’ll say to me ‘oh hello Michael bona to vada your dolly old eek’ and then you know he has a good old laugh about it because sometimes your days at sea were so good in those days, and so much fun, and I think there’s a little bit of rose tinted memories as well, that when you use the Polari it brings back all those wonderful memories.

Polari phrases…

  • How bona to varda your dolly old eek!
    How good to see your dear old face!
  • Vada the dolly dish, shame about his bijou lallies
    Look at the attractive man, shame about his short legs
  • Can I troll round your lally?
    Can I have a look around your house?

Polari-English dictionary…

  • ajax: nearby (from adjacent?)
  • basket: the bulge of male genitals through clothes
  • batts: shoes
  • bevvy: drink
  • bijou: small
  • bod: body
  • bold: daring
  • bona: good
  • butch: masculine; masculine lesbian
  • camp: effeminate (origin: KAMP = Known As Male Prostitute)
  • capello: hat
  • carsey: toilet, also spelt khazi
  • charper: search
  • charpering omi: policeman
  • cod: naff, vile
  • crimper: hairdresser
  • dish: an attractive male; buttocks
  • dizzy: scatterbrained
  • dolly: pretty, nice, pleasant
  • drag: clothes, especially women’s clothes
  • ecaf: face (backslang)
  • eek: face (abbreviation of ecaf)
  • ends: hair
  • esong: nose
  • fantabulosa: wonderful
  • feele: child
  • fruit: queen
  • gelt: money
  • glossies: magazines
  • handbag: money
  • hoofer: dancer
  • jarry: food, also mangarie
  • kaffies: trousers
  • lallies: legs
  • latty: room, house or flat
  • lills: hands
  • lilly: police (Lilly Law)
  • luppers: fingers
  • mangarie: food, also jarry
  • measures: money
  • meese: plain, ugly (from Yiddish)
  • meshigener: nutty, crazy, mental
  • metzas: money
  • mince: walk (affectedly)
  • naff: bad, drab
  • nanti: not, no
  • national handbag: dole
  • nishta: nothing, no
  • oglefakes: glasses
  • ogles: eyes
  • omi: man
  • omi-polone: effeminate man, or homosexual
  • onk: nose
  • orbs: eyes
  • palare pipe: telephone
  • palliass: back (as in part of body)
  • park: give
  • plate: feet
  • polari: chat, talk
  • polone: woman
  • pots: teeth
  • riah/riha: hair
  • riah shusher: hairdresser
  • scarper: to run off
  • scotch: leg
  • sharpy: policeman
  • shush: steal (from client)
  • shush bag: holdall
  • shyker / shyckle: wig
  • slap: makeup
  • strillers: piano
  • thews: thighs
  • trade: sex
  • troll: to walk about (especially looking for trade)
  • vada/varda: see

*Special thanks to the Merseyside Maritime Museum and the ‘Hello Sailor!‘ exhibition for this information.

**Paul Baker and Jo Stanley’s book ‘Hello Sailor! The Hidden History of Gay Life at Sea‘ is available from Pearson Education, London, 2003.