Polari (also seen as 'Palare') is a gay slang language, which has now almost died out. It was more common in the 1960's when gays had more need of a private slang. When I started to research Polari, it was difficult to find any written material about Polari as what little used to exist was out of print. However, in the last few years, more and more people have been finding out about it, and several web sites and magazine articles have been written.

Polari featured heavily in the "Julian and Sandy" sketches on the BBC radio program "Round the Horne" in the late 60s, and this is how a lot of people first heard of Polari. A few words like 'bona' can still be seen in gay publications, used for camp effect. There are even hairdressers in London and Brighton called "Bona Riah".

Polari itself was never clearly defined: an ever-changing collection of slang from various sources including Italian, English (backwards slang, rhyming slang), circus slang, canal-speak, Yiddish and Gypsy languages. It is impossible to tell which slang words are real Polari.

In London, there was a West End dialect, based on theatre-speak, which was posher than the East End dialect, based on canal/boat-speak.

Here is a list of words I have put together from various sources. The core of the words are hopefully "authentic" Polari, but some will be just "any old" slang. Additions welcome.

Word list
ajax nearby (from adjacent?)
basket the bulge of male genitals through clothes
batts shoes
bijou small
bod body
bold daring
bona good
butch masculine; masculine lesbian
camp effeminate (origin: KAMP = Known As Male Prostitute)
capello hat
carts/cartso penis
carsey toilet, also spelt khazi
chicken young boy
charper search
charpering omi policeman
cod naff, vile
cottage public loo (particularly with reference to cottaging)
cottaging having or looking for sex in a cottage
crimper hairdresser
dish an attractive male; buttocks
dizzy scatterbrained
dolly pretty, nice, pleasant
drag clothes, esp. 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
khazi toilet, also spelt carsey
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 (from Not Available For Fucking)
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 cpart of body)
park give
plate feet; to fellate
polari chat, talk
polone woman
pots teeth
riah/riha hair
riah shusher hairdresser
scarper to run off (from Italian scappare, to escape)
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 (esp. looking for trade)
vada/varda see
willets breasts

Related web links
Most useful sites
Wikipedia entry for Polari
How bona to vada your eek!
A detailed account of the origins of Polari, with a glossary and references.
Polari Words from Lingua Franca
Paul Baker's Polari research
Polari - a Cinderella among languages

Other sites

The Fantabulosa OmiPalone's page - defines a few Polari words
The Kenneth Williams Appreciation Society
"The Queens' Vernacular, A Gay Lexicon" by Bruce Rodgers, (Straight Arrow books 1972, ISBN 0 87932 026 5)
reprinted as
"Gay talk, a (sometimes outrageous) dictionary of gay slang" by Bruce Rodgers, (Paragon 1979, ISBN 0 399 50392 7)
A detailed dictionary of gay slang from all over the world, which describes the origins of words, but doesn't mention Polari much.

"Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men, London, Routledge" by Baker, J. P., (Routledge 2002)

"Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang" by Baker, J. P., (2002)

"Hello Sailor! Seafaring Life for Gay Men 1945-1990." by Baker, J. P. and Stanley, J., (2002)

"A Dictionary of Slang" by Eric Partridge, published by Routledge & Kegan Paul
Has an entry on Parlyaree, describing its origins.

"Broadcasting it : an encyclopaedia of homosexuality in film, radio and TV in the UK, 1923-1993" by Keith Howes (Cassell lesbian and gay studies 1993, ISBN 0 304 32702 6)

"The Margins of the City: Gay Men's Urban Lives", ed. by Stephen Whittle, Ashgate Publishing (1994, ISBN 1-85742-202-3) Contains "Gayspeak, the Linguistic Fringe: Bona Polari, Camp, Queerspeak and Beyond" by Leslie J Cox & Richard J Fay (pp103-127)

"Language in the British Isles" ed. by Peter Trudgill, Cambridge UP (1984) Contains "Shelta and Polari" by Ian Hancock (pp 384-403)

"The Homosexual Society" by R Hauser, published by The Bodley Head (1962)
Has a glossary of about 60 entries of "The private language of a minority - the homosexual society"

"The Bona Book of Julian and Sandy" by Barry Took and Marty Feldman (Robson 1976)

"Round The Horne - The complete and utter history" by Barry Took (Boxtree 1998, ISBN 0 7522 2111 9)

"Impertinent Decorum: Gay Theatrical Manoeuvres" by Ian Lucas (Cassell 1994, ISBN 0304327972)

"A Queer Companion" edited by M.J.Ellison and Charles T. Fosberry (Abson Books 1996, ISBN 0 902920 960)

"Parallel Lives" autobiography by Peter Burton (GMP 1985, ISBN 0907040659)

"The Kenneth Williams Diaries" edited by Russell Davies (Harper Collins 1993, ISBN 0 00 638090 5)

Magazine articles

"Jeffrey" magazine, issue 2, October 1972
A glossary of "Polari, The real Queens' English", about 100 entries

"Gayspeak" by Mary McIntosh, in "Lunch" issue 16, January 1973
Traces the origins of Polari in circus performers' language. (I haven't seen this - could anyone do me a photocopy?)

"The Color Of His Eyes" by Ian Lucas, in "Queerly Phrased" edited by Kira Hall & Anna Livia (OUP 1997)
Traces the origins of Polari in circus performers' language.

Films, TV programmes and songs which include some Polari
Velvet Goldmine

"BBC Radio Collection: Julian & Sandy" double cassette (BBC 1992, ISBN 0-563-40626-7)


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© Chris Denning, last update 26 June 2007