polari, gay slang, british, history

VIDEO: A Short Film (And Some History) Of Early Gay Slang

Putting On The Dish is a new film by Brian Fairbairn and Karl Eccleston (above). The duo are perhaps most famous for their short Skwerl, depicting a couple’s disagreement in fake English (below).

Putting On The Dish, likewise, plays with language, and at first blush might sound like fake English as well, but it’s not. In fact, the short is in Polari, a slang language that was used by British gay men prior to the legalization of homosexuality in 1967.

The criminalization of homosexuality came with stiff punishments, including prison or chemical castration. Thus, gay men (lesbianism was never made illegal) had to use code if they wanted to discretely talk about their lives.  Enter Polari, a slang that dates back as far as the nineteenth century among theater types, sailors, showmen and criminals. It allowed gay men to talk about their attractions, adventures or antagonisms with other men without being detected.

Polari is a hodgepodge of Italian, Romani, Yiddish and wordplay. Words like “vada” (to see) are corruptions of existing Italian words (vardare), where others like “ecaf” or “riah” are merely the standard English word backwards.

There’s a playful nature to Polari, which is one reason it comes up in popular culture. On Grant Morrison’s run of Doom Patrol in the ’90s, Morrison played Danny the Street, a character who communicated in Polari. Perhaps more interesting: Danny was literally a street, communicating through messages on awnings and in store windows. Todd Haynes 1998 film Velvet Goldmine featured a subtitled scene where two judgmental queens talk  about a young musician referring to him as “Mistress Bona” (Miss Beautiful), Roger the quasi-gay alien from American Dad will occasionally sneak in Polari-speak like “zhoosh” (to fix or tidy up), and Polari appears ALL OVER bisexual British crooner Morrissey’s stuff.

And there’s a bunch of Polari you probably already know — words like “drag”, “butch”, “camp”, or “rough trade.” Seems like the more you learn about Polari, you the more you’ll hear its influences on modern pop culture.

These days, since homosexuality is legal in the UK and most other English speaking nations, there’s no particular need to hide and so Polari isn’t used much anymore. But it’s still a part of history that we shouldn’t let go of. And besides, there’s some really great words to zhoosh up your vocab with.