Polari slang

Naff, butch, camp, and zhoosh are slang terms that came out of Polari, an argot from early 20th century English gay subculture.

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Guanaco and subsequent editors, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Prior to 1967, male-male relationships were illegal in England. (And, to be honest, even with the passage of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 it was still difficult – a gay couple had a higher age of consent than a heterosexual couple, for example, and only “in private.”) In response, some gay subcultures in England adopted a secret argot called Polari.

Polari enabled gay men to converse without falling under the legal hammer or drawing public attention. It was a kind of code – use these words, and you signal your “membership” without outsiders knowing. Here’s a sample:

Bona to vada your dolly old eek!
(Good to see your nice face)

Polari: The code language gay men used to survive

Polari was a linguistic mash-up of a lot of different sources. Romani and Italian are two likely contributors, the latter from Punch and Judy puppet shows. Other words came from various branches of English slang, including Cockney rhyming slang, thieves’ cant, and circus and theatre talk.

The slang lost its secrecy in the 1960s. The radio programme Round the Horne introduced two Polari-speaking characters in 1965 (using it, in part, as a way to get around BBC’s censorship). The show’s enormous success pushed Polari into the mainstream. It could no longer serve as a marker of membership, so it began to die out.

Today Polari is mostly a historical footnote, but many of its words entered modern slang and are still used today: naff, butch, camp, and zhoosh (as in to “zhoosh up” something) are some examples. And the slang itself still pops up from time to time. There’s a Polari opera and a translation of the bible too:

1. In the beginning Gloria created the heaven and the earth.

2. And the earth was nanti form, and void; and munge was upon the eke of the deep. And the Fairy of Gloria trolled upon the eke of the aquas.

3. And Gloria cackled, Let there be sparkle: and there was sparkle.

Polari bible

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