Polari — a mixture of Italian, Romany and Yiddish with some backward-spelled English sprinkled in — is a unique piece of the history of LGBT culture
Hardy Haberman Flagging Left
It almost knocked my ogle fakes off my eek when I aunt nelled that the bona omis and palones at Cambridge University reported Polari was in danger of dying out. Without Polari, cackle about that fantabulosa trade you vardered — you know. the omi with the vogue in his screech and the bona basket? — would never be the same.
Before you go blaming the editor for that previous unintelligible paragraph, I assure you it was mostly proper English with a smattering of Polari sprinkled in to make it understandable only by those in the know.
Polari (from the Italian parlare, “to talk”) is an old slang language that was used by actors, circus and carnival folk and the gay subculture of Brittain. It comes from a strange mix of Italian, Romany and Yiddish, with a few odd backward-spelled words added here and there.
Though it started in England, many words color the vernacular still used today in our own LGBT culture.
The term “camp” is Polari for “exaggerated.” Our expression “rough trade” also descends from this slang.
It was a colorful way for gay people to communicate without being overheard in potentially unfriendly surroundings.
But why should I care if this archaic slang dies out or not? Well, Polari is part of our heritage, every bit as much as the Stonewall Riots and Harvey Milk.
Next time you hear someone use the terms “chicken” for a younger man, or “butch” for a masculine woman or man, they are using elements of Polari. If you have ever admired a “basket” or “zhooshed” your hair, you are using remnants of that near-dead language that have seeped into our daily lexicon.
It might seem like a small thing, but I find myself fascinated with it and feel the LGBT community and culture will be a little poorer if it fades away.
So in the interest of proving the linguists at Cambridge University wrong, I offer a compiled list of useful Polari words:
Ajax — close by
Aunt nells — ears
Auntie nelly fakes — earrings
Basket — the bulge of a man’s crotch
Batts — shoes
Bijou — small
Bod — body
Bona — good
Bungery — bar, pub
Butch — masculine
Camp — effeminate or exaggerated
Capello — hat
Carsey — toilet
Chicken — young boy
Charpering omi — policeman
Cottage — public restroom
Cottaging — do the math!
Crimper — hairdresser
Cove — friend
Dish — attractive male backside
Dolly — pretty, pleasant
Drag — clothes, esp. women’s clothes
Eek — face (abbreviation of ecaf which is face backwards)
Feele — young
Feele omi — young man
Naff — bad
Ogle — eye
Ogle fakes — Glasses
Omi — man
Omi palone — effeminate man
Palone — woman
Palare — to talk
Riah — hair (backwards)
Slap — makeup
Troll — walk or wander or cruise
Vada — to walk or wander
Vogue — cigarette
Walloper — dancer
Zhoosh — fix or tidy up.
Now go out and troll off to some bona bijou bungery and palare with your coves.
If you are interested in more details on Polari, check out Paul Baker’s book, Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang.
Hardy Haberman is a longtime local LGBT activist and a member of Stonewall Democrats of Dallas. His blog is at http://dungeondiary.blogspot.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 17, 2010.
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