Polari (from Italian parlare = "to talk", "to speak") is a gay slang language, that was used in the gay subculture in Britain in the 1930s - 1970s, and which has now almost died out. It is not a constructed language, but a secret vocabulary, a cant or argot in the linguist's term, which uses the grammar and syntax of English as well as most of its core vocabulary. It was in fairly common use on British Merchant Navy ships (particularly passenger ships owned by P&O).
It was also used in London fish markets, in private gay drinking establishments, in the theatre and in related branches of show business s(dancers, chorus boys and female impersonators) and in the circus. However it was not limited to London - it has been heard in many other UK cities and, laer, also in the USA, possibly thanks to the English sailors. Because it was a secret language, it could be used safely in public spaces.
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".
Linguists still argue about where it came from. The larger part of its vocabulary is certainly Italian in origin, but nobody seems to know how the words got into Britain. Some experts say its origins lie in the Lingua Franca. Quite a number of British sailors learnt the Lingua Franca. On returning home and retiring from the sea it is supposed that many of them became vagabonds or travellers, because they had no other means of livelihood; this threw them into contact with roving groups of entertainers and fairground people, who picked up some of the pidgin terms and incorporated them into their own canting private vocabularies. However, other linguists point to the substantial number of native Italians who came to Britain as entertainers in the early part of the nineteenth century, organ grinders and peddlars of the 1850s.
Polari is mainly a lexicon, derived from a variety of sources. Some of the most common include rhyming slang, Cockney back slang (saying a common word, pronounced as if spelled backwards), Italian, Occitan, French, Yiddish (a mix of Hebrew and Geraman), Lingua Franca (a pidgin of the shores of the Mediterranean in use from the Middle Ages on, as a medium of communication between sailors and traders from widely different language groups, the core of this language being Italian and Occitan), drug-user slang, Parlyaree (an older form of slang used by tinkers, beggars and travelling players), Cant (an even older form of slang used by criminals), Romany (originally an Indian dialect used by the Gypsies), and Shelta (the cant of the Irish tinkers).
Much of Parlyaree, the travelling showmen's language, appears to be derived from the Lingua Franca or the vocabulary of travelling actors and showmen during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. 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.There are lots of different versions in existence - different pronunciations, spellings and meanings of the same word. It is very difficult to tell which slang words are real Polari.
In the following pages is a list of words we have put together from various sources. The core of the words are (hopefully) "authentic" Polari. We would be grateful for suggestions to allow us to fill any gap, or if you would kindly suggest additions or corrections. In case, please send us an e-mail at Matt & Andrej Koymasky. Thank you very much.