“What was this strange and secretive language which made the audience giggle so?”
Julian and Sandy, of BBC radio’s ‘Round the Horne’s, amazingly camp voices first graced my ears with their titters about three years ago now – being a massive fan of Kenneth Williams – having watched a modest amount of Carry On films, documentaries and dramatisations of his life and even owning an autobiography – here was a realm of William’s work to which I was new. Not only his radio work but his work with the language of Polari.
“Polari used in ‘Round the Horne’ was overt and covert at the same time, one level for heterosexuals, one level for queers. A double layer of innuendo but the audience laughed along still, the heterosexuals laughed along.”
What was this strange and secretive language which made the audience giggle so? It was so quick, it sounded funny in itself without knowing the precise meaning, it reminded me of reading ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Burgess, your mind ticked in the background to make sense which was part of the enjoyment. It was certainly very risqué whatever it was. There must be something contemporary to which would benefit my understanding I thought as I rummaged through my collection of Morrissey albums, (I’m queer of course I love Morrissey.) At last I found the one I was looking for – ‘Bona Drag’, as I played the first track entitled ‘Piccadilly Palare’ and Steven Patrick Morrissey crooned out the lyrics ‘so bona to vada, oh you, your lovely eek and your lovely riah, We plied an ancient trade where we through all of life’s instructions away.’ And what ‘trade’ was that I wondered… I mean I had my ideas… Certainly all the language played off body parts, any body part, you name it there is an equivalent in Polari for you. But the language that Julian and Sandy were exchanging was more than that – there was a theatricality to it, a showmanship, a trade if you like, so bold and brash and in the sixties.
Polari used in ‘Round the Horne’ was overt and covert at the same time, one level for heterosexuals, one level for queers. A double layer of innuendo but the audience laughed along still, the heterosexuals laughed along. No longer was Polari the gay subculture’s little secret but returned once more to the stage from which it had a stint as a dialect used between homosexual actors. It worked so well for the medium of radio, the reliance on the spoken word, so wonderful does Polari sound when spoken compared to the written page, so sad that a blog cannot do it justice. It was the dynamism of the language. Turns out research did uncover its origins in 19th century male prostitute’s slang which continued to be used in certain areas of gay subculture. But with Julian and Sandy it was brought out of the fringes and into relative mainstream limelight, so boldly too.
So in pondering this why is the language so tucked away now? Why so distant and unheard of? Certainly the secret was uncovered, no longer was the language an exclusive code for covert discussions about the boy across the bar’s lovely buttocks – not to say that the sexual focus of the ‘scene’ is no longer there – but rather it is expressed, now, after the sexual revolution of the 60s in a much more overt way.
“That many of the words […] have made their way into everyday speech is a tribute to at least some influence it has had to colour UK speech.”
No longer, I would like to believe, will men have to stand hidden in a corner talking in code about their lovers or sexual pursuits, but rather I’d like to believe that the disuse of Polari represents a movement towards openness and acceptance, well tolerance at the very least, in modern society of a homosexual or bisexual ‘gaze.’ That many of the words, some of which can be found in the list I’ve put in the bottom of this blog, have made their way into everyday speech is a tribute to at least some influence it has had to colour UK speech including the now frequent uses of the words ‘naff’ and to ‘mince.’
I think that we should reflect on Polari as something not to be ashamed of due to its origins at all but rather a reminder of the rich culture we can find and celebrate in our past as a queer community. It is a milestone of our advancement in moving towards a sexual openness from the sixties onwards and for whilst Julian and Sandy might have been ‘screaming queens’, a certain stereotypical camp presentation of homosexual men, they hopefully also chart the beginnings of a liberation that is still very much still in it’s infancy in the open discussion of queer fancies in mainstream culture.
Polari Word list
|ajax||nearby (from adjacent?)|
|basket||the bulge of male genitals through clothes|
|butch||masculine; masculine lesbian|
|camp||effeminate (origin: KAMP = Known As Male Prostitute)|
|carsey||toilet, also spelt khazi|
|cottage||public loo (particularly with reference to cottaging)|
|cottaging||having or looking for sex in a cottage|
|dish||an attractive male; buttocks|
|dolly||pretty, nice, pleasant|
|drag||clothes, esp. women’s clothes|
|eek||face (abbreviation of ecaf)|
|jarry||food, also mangarie|
|khazi||toilet, also spelt carsey|
|latty||room, house or flat|
|lilly||police (Lilly Law)|
|mangarie||food, also jarry|
|meese||plain, ugly (from Yiddish)|
|meshigener||nutty, crazy, mental|
|naff||bad, drab (from Not Available For Fucking)|
|omi-polone||effeminate man, or homosexual|
|palliass||back (as in cpart of body)|
|plate||feet; to fellate|
|scarper||to run off (from Italian scappare, to escape)|
|shush||steal (from client)|
|troll||to walk about (esp. looking for trade)|
Why not have a vada at the video? As alas a blog does not do justice.