Abby's Inklings: The language of Polari
By Abbigail Cowels
Queer communities have advanced into their own sub cultures throughout modern civilization to escape scrutiny and worse.
Across Europe, these communities had developed a language called Polari to remain anonymous and safe, though its prevalence mostly in the UK because of strict laws against homosexuality.
“… sub cultures on the very edges of society, the low slang used by thieves, itinerant sailors, fishmongers, travelling circus performers, beggars, prostitutes, and (of course) theater people.” According to Chi Luu’s “The Unspeakable Linguistics of Camp,” the language was spoken by many of those whose livelihood depended on travel, who wanted to know with whom it was “safe” to acquaint themselves.
A secret language, explained by Luu is, “the lost language of Britain, Italian-influenced carnival speech Parlyaree, Cockney rhyming slang, backwards slang, Yiddish and Lingua Franca, the sailors’ argot. Polari is an amalgamation of the languages and lexicons adopted through their travels.
“Until 1967, homosexual sex was illegal in England and Wales,” BBC points out in “Polari: The code language gay men used to survive.”
With fear of being ostracized from a society that frowns so heavily on homosexuality, this was their way to stay under the radar; to otherwise avoid imprisonment and even death.
Paul Burston demonstrates words we still use in modern language today in “Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language and Its Influence Today.” The term “Drag” is pulled directly from the almost lost language and others that may be recognized: Camp (effeminate), Butch (masculine), Bevvy (drink).
It seems that within current LGBTQ+ society, remnants of Polari can be heard within our own language. These are all small legacies from a language that was first birthed in fear, but now ubiquitous in a rich and celebrated culture.