Rediscovering Polari: What Is Polari And Why Did It Die Out?

What is Polari, where did it come from, and why did it become a dead language? We investigate.
man whispering in his partner's ear what is polari

“Oooh, vada the lally-drags on that omee. Very sheesh!” You might have overheard this sentence in a London bar in the 1950s, spoken as a casual comment from one man to another. Their subject: an attractive young man wearing eye-catching trousers. But you’d only know this if you spoke Polari, the secret slang language used by gay men to avoid persecution. What is Polari? Let’s take a look at how it came about, and how it went from being a living cultural repository to a dead language.

What Is Polari?

Born from many different subculture dialects, Polari is a secret language that not only allowed gay men to talk about sex without being persecuted or prosecuted but was also a crucial building block of queer culture. Fun, sexy and humored, Polari was a language of gossip and entertainment. Although homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967, underground queer culture thrived in the late 19th and 20th centuries — and much of that was thanks to Polari.

As expert Paul Baker explains, Polari was spoken every day, peppered throughout normal conversation — and if it did have a purpose, it was to talk about everyone else. “Polari was about talking about who you knew, who you had sex with, who you fancied, who was available and who wasn’t, and the gossip about that person. There were words about sex, but there were also a lot of evaluative words for it. You could talk about someone’s legs or their hair, and evaluate that too. So it was more a social bonding language.”

“Polari was about talking about who you knew, who you had sex with, who you fancied, and the gossip about that person.”

Because Polari is an organic conglomeration of subculture slangs and criminal cants that preceded it, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when Polari began. According to some sources, like Matt Houlbrook’s book Queer London, Polari was spoken in molly houses as far back as the late 1800s. Baker, however, sees Polari as coming into its heyday in the 1920s, reaching the peak of its popularity in the ’40s and ’50s, and declining in the late ’60s.

Bona Radio: Polari Goes Mainstream

While Polari started as a secret language for gay men, it quickly became an open secret, and fewer people were asking “what is Polari?”. This was thanks in large part to the wildly popular radio show Round The Horne. Broadcast on Sundays and considered a family event, the show was listened to by an audience of 9 million people. It featured Julian and Sandy, two endearingly camp men played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams, who used Polari liberally throughout their speech.

Every Julian and Sandy sketch revolved around the show’s host, Kenneth Horne, visiting a new enterprise the men were embarking on, from travel agencies to law practices. It was quite clear that the men were gay, although this was illegal at the time — and Round The Horne even made fun of the criminality:

  • HORNE: Will you take my case?
  • JULIAN: Well, it depends on what it is. We’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most of our time.
  • HORNE: Yes, but apart from that, I need legal advice.
  • SANDY: Ooh, isn’t he bold?

(Round The Horne — Bona Law)

Julian and Sandy’s sketches are fascinating because what makes them funny isn’t just the delightfully camp personas of the characters, but their witty use of Polari. Even though Round The Horne’s audience was essentially mainstream British society, these Polari word-play jokes landed, with listeners laughing uproariously every time. This is mostly thanks to context and the performances of Paddick and Williams, who made the language accessible and hilarious even to non-speakers.

Round The Horne was a huge landmark for queer representation in British media. The 1960s were an incredibly restrictive time for media in the UK, so for Julian and Sandy to be broadcast every Sunday as their unashamedly camp selves was notable. This helped to not only destigmatize homosexuality to the average British citizen, but to make queerness endearing. 

This was important to not only to destigmatize homosexuality to the average British citizen, but to make queerness endearing.

Polari served another purpose for Round The Horne because it allowed the writers to make jokes about sex in a time when censors were strict. Chief among the censors was Mary Whitehouse, an activist who led the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association in a near-constant war against the BBC for various perceived indecencies in its programming. Meanwhile, every Sunday, Julian and Sandy would make all manner of sex jokes and she never once complained about them — because she didn’t speak Polari.

Yet, for all the good that Round The Horne did for the acceptance of homosexuality, the more people learned about Polari, the less queer people wanted to speak it themselves.

Decriminalization & Cultural Shift

The push for homosexuality to be decriminalized (which came to fruition in 1967), led to a movement away from Polari and camp culture within the LGBT community. As Baker explains, “By the late sixties you get this new generation of gay people. They want liberation, they’re very much about openness, and they eschew camp.”

Round The Horne also had the unfortunate effect of breaking Polari’s spell of secrecy. While researching the language, Paul Baker asked Polari speakers why they thought the language died out. “Some people said it had become too popular, that Julian and Sandy killed it off because suddenly everyone in the country knew what it was about.” This is easy to understand. After all, part of the fun of Polari was that it was a secret code, and there were scores more people asking “What is Polari?” or having never heard of it at all.

Ultimately, Polari seems to have gone out of vogue because it was, as Baker puts it, “a relic of an oppressed time that people wanted to escape.” In the queer scene, people wanted to seem young and desirable, and by the late ’60s, Polari started to look a bit old hat.

Whatever the specific reasons, Polari died simply because people stopped speaking it. By the ’90s, when Baker was conducting his research, his interviewees knew Polari but no longer used it day-to-day. And by the aughts, Polari had all but disappeared from the queer scene — though it is now seeing something of a resurgence.

Surviving As Heritage

As a dialect that existed almost entirely to be spoken, not written, Polari’s long-term survival was always going to be unlikely. Of course, there are records of it: Round The Horne is an invaluable resource for the language because it provides not only a record of the slang terms but also the context in which they would be used. Kenneth Williams’ diaries are another good primary source. But even with these records, Polari was in danger of being forgotten — or it would have been, were it not for the actions of a few dedicated people.

Even as its use dwindled, there were those who kept Polari alive and even some who considered it sacred — in a tongue-in-cheek way. Founded in San Francisco in 1979, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are a queer order of nuns who use street performance and drag in their ceremonies. Similar to how the Roman Catholic Church uses Latin, many of the British order’s services are conducted in Polari, and they have even created a Polari translation of the Christian Bible.

But if there’s one person we have to thank for Polari’s preservation, it’s Paul Baker. Beginning his study of the language in the nineties, Baker wrote his doctoral thesis on the subject, entitled Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men. His research, along with chapters on Polari in other academic books, laid the groundwork for Baker’s dictionary of Polari. And in July this year, Baker is publishing a new book on Polari — entitled Fabulosa! The Story Of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language, this book is an in-depth history with plenty of fun anecdotes from Baker’s interviewees.

Nowadays, Polari has a lot of legacy appeal for the LGBT community. The British queer community is slowly rediscovering the dialect, thanks to workshops run by bookshops like London’s Gay’s The Word. Some queer artists have used Polari in projects like the independent book cruising for lavs and the short film Putting On The Dish, both of which are written entirely in Polari.

Yet for all this revival, Polari will never again be spoken like it was in its heyday. We have a new vernacular now, with myriad terms imported from America (specifically AAVE), and modern cultural references that Polari lacks. But that’s fine. Language changes so it can fulfill its purpose of communicating contemporary culture. So although we can mourn the fact that Polari will never be spoken as it once was, we can rejoice that the language is getting another lease on life as LGBT heritage, allowing young queer people to learn about the secret cant which allowed their forebears to live their lives just a bit more freely. 

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