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Palare, Parlary, Palarie, Palari
Region United Kingdom and Ireland
Native speakers
Second language only
English-based cant
Language codes
ISO 639-3 pld
Glottolog pola1249[2]

Polari (or alternatively Parlare, Parlary, Palare, Palarie, Palari;[3] from Italian parlare, "to talk") is a form of cant slang used in Britain by actors, circus and fairground showmen, merchant navy sailors, criminals, prostitutes, and the gay subculture. There is some debate about its origins,[4] but it can be traced back to at least the nineteenth century and possibly the sixteenth century.[5] There is a long-standing connection with Punch and Judy street puppet performers who traditionally used Polari to converse.[6]


Polari is a mixture of Romance (Italian[7] or Mediterranean Lingua Franca), London slang,[7] backslang, rhyming slang, sailor slang, and thieves' cant. Later it expanded to contain words from the Yiddish language and from 1960s drug users. It was a constantly developing form of language, with a small core lexicon of about 20 words (including bona, ajax, eek, cod, naff, lattie, nanti, omi, palone, riah, zhoosh (tjuz), TBH, trade, vada), and over 500 other lesser-known words.[8] According to a Channel 4 television documentary, there was once (in London) an "East End" version which stressed Cockney rhyming slang and a "West End" version which stressed theatrical and Classical influences. There was some interchange between the two.


Polari was used in London fishmarkets, the theatre, fairgrounds and circuses, hence the many borrowings from Romany. As many homosexual men worked in theatrical entertainment it was also used among the gay subculture, at a time when homosexual activity was illegal, to disguise homosexuals from hostile outsiders and undercover policemen. It was also used extensively in the British Merchant Navy, where many gay men joined ocean liners and cruise ships as waiters, stewards and entertainers.[9] On one hand, it would be used as a means of cover to allow gay subjects to be discussed aloud without being understood; on the other hand, it was also used by some, particularly the most visibly camp and effeminate, as a further way of asserting their identity.

The almost identical Parlyaree has been spoken in fairgrounds since at least the seventeenth century[10] and continues to be used by show travellers in England and Scotland. As theatrical booths, circus acts and menageries were once a common part of European fairs it is likely that the roots of Polari/Parlyaree lie in the period before both theatre and circus became independent of the fairgrounds. The Parlyaree spoken on fairgrounds tends to borrow much more from Romany, as well as other languages and argots spoken by travelling people, such as cant and backslang.

Henry Mayhew gave a verbatim account of Polari as part of an interview with a Punch and Judy showman in the 1850s. The discussion he recorded references the arrival of Punch in England, crediting these early shows to a performer from Italy called Porcini (see also John Payne Collier's account of Porsini—Payne Collier calls him Porchini—in Punch and Judy).[11] Mayhew provides the following:

Punch Talk "'Bona Parle' means language; name of patter. 'Yeute munjare' – no food. 'Yeute lente' – no bed. 'Yeute bivare' – no drink. I've 'yeute munjare,' and 'yeute bivare,' and, what's worse, 'yeute lente.' This is better than the costers' talk, because that ain't no slang and all, and this is a broken Italian, and much higher than the costers' lingo. We know what o'clock it is, besides."[6]

There are additional accounts of particular words that relate to puppet performance: "'Slumarys' – figures, frame, scenes, properties. 'Slum' – call, or unknown tongue"[6] ("unknown" is a reference to the "swazzle", a voice modifier used by Punch performers, the structure of which was a longstanding trade secret).

There are many sources of polari lexicons or "dictionaries" online, most of which are random collections with little or no research, rather than a descriptive list of terms in use.

Decline in use

Polari had begun to fall into disuse amongst the gay subculture by the late 1960s. The popularity of the Julian and Sandy characters played by Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick ensured that some of this secret language became public property,[12] and the gay liberationists of the 1970s viewed it as rather degrading, divisive and politically incorrect as it was often used to gossip about, or criticise, others, as well as to discuss sexual exploits. In addition, the need for a secret subculture code declined with the legalisation of adult homosexual acts in England and Wales in 1967.

In popular culture

Polari was popularised in the 1960s by camp characters Julian and Sandy in the popular BBC radio show Round the Horne starring Kenneth Horne, Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick.[12]

In the first series of British comedians' panel television series Jokers Wild (1969), comedian Ray Martine is asked to explain the term palone (woman), which he used while telling a joke. In response to the definition, programme presenter Barry Cryer refers to Martine as a bona omi (good man).

Jason King star Peter Wyngarde recorded a self-titled album in 1970 which contained the song "Hippie and the Skinhead" about Billy the "queer sexy hippie" "trolling the Dilly".

In the long running BBC Programme Doctor Who, in the episode "The Carnival of Monsters", a showman, believing The Doctor to be one himself, attempts to converse with him in Polari. The Doctor states that he doesn't understand him. This is uncharacteristic of him, as he has never had problems with language before.

Use today

Bona Togs clothes shop

Since the mid-1990s, with the redistribution of cassettes and CDs of Round The Horne, and with increasing academic interest, Polari has undergone something of a revival. New words are being invented and updated to refer to more recent cultural concepts.

In 1990, Morrissey titled an album Bona Drag– Polari for "nice outfit" – and the single "Piccadilly Palare".

Also in 1990, comic book writer Grant Morrison created the Polari-speaking character Danny the Street (based on Danny La Rue), a sentient transvestite street, for the comic Doom Patrol.

The 1998 film Velvet Goldmine, which chronicles a fictional retelling of the rise and fall of glam rock, contains a flashback to 1970 in which a group of characters converse in Polari, while their words are humorously subtitled below.

In 2002, two books on Polari were published, Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men, and Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang (both by Paul Baker). Also in 2002, hip hop artist Juha released an album called Polari, with the chorus of the title song written entirely in the slang.

Characters in Liver, use Polari.

Comedians Paul O'Grady, Julian Clary, David Walliams, and Matt Lucas incorporate Polari in their comedy routines, as did Rik Mayall.

In 2012, artists Jez Dolan and Joseph Richardson created an iPhone app which makes available the Polari lexicon and comprehensive list of etymologies.[13][14]

Entry into standard English

A number of words from Polari have entered mainstream slang; some recent examples are:


The Polari word naff, meaning inferior or tacky, has an uncertain etymology. Michael Quinion states that it is probably from the sixteenth-century Italian word gnaffa, meaning "a despicable person".[15]

There are a number of folk etymologies, many based on acronyms—Not Available For Fucking, Normal As Fuck—though these are backronyms. More likely etymologies include northern UK dialect naffhead, naffin, or naffy, a simpleton or blockhead; niffy-naffy, inconsequential, stupid, or Scots nyaff, a term of contempt for any unpleasant or objectionable person. An alternative etymology may lie in the Romany naflo, itself rooted in násfalo, meaning ill.

The phrase "naff off" was used euphemistically in place of "fuck off" along with the intensifier "naffing" in Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse (1959).[16]

Usage of "naff" increased in the 1970s when television sitcom Porridge employed it as an alternative to expletives which were not considered broadcastable at the time. [15] Princess Anne famously told a reporter, "Why don't you just naff off" at the Badminton horse trials in April 1982.[17]


"Zhoosh" (, or [18]), meaning to smarten up, style or improve something, has become commonplace more recently, having been used on the TV series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and What Not to Wear. Its initial consonant has led new users to generate variant spellings such as "zoosh", "soozh", "tszuj", "zhoozh" "juushz" etc. In some pronunciations, the word begins and ends with the same phoneme, the voiced postalveolar fricative, which can be heard as the "s" sound in the words "television" and "pleasure". Others pronounce the final consonant like the "sh" in "push".

Polari glossary

Word Definition
ajax nearby (from adjacent?)
alamo hot for you/him
aunt nell listen, hear
aunt nells ears
aunt nelly fakes earrings
aunt nell danglers earrings
barney a fight
basket the bulge of male genitals through clothes
batts shoes
bibi bisexual
bitch effeminate or passive gay man
bijou small/little (means "jewel" in French)
blag pick up
blue code word for "homosexual"
bod body
bona good
bona nochy goodnight (from Italian - buona notte)
bonaroo wonderful, excellent
bungery pub, this comes from the English word for the closure on a barrel.
butch masculine; masculine lesbian
buvare a drink (from Italian - bere or old-fashioned Italian - bevere or Lingua Franca bevire)
cackle talk/gossip
camp effeminate (possibly from Italian campare "exaggerate, make stand out")
capello/capella hat (from Italian, also Greek - cappello)
carsey toilet, also spelt khazi
carts/cartso penis (from Italian - cazzo)
cats trousers
charper to search (from Italian - acchiappare - to catch)
charpering omi policeman
charver to shag/a shag (sexual intercourse) (from Italian - chiavare)
chicken young man
clobber clothes
cod naff, vile
cottage a public lavatory used for sexual encounters
cottaging seeking or obtaining sexual encounters in public lavatories
cove friend
crimper hairdresser
dally sweet, kind. Possibly an alternate pronunciation of dolly.
dilly boy a male prostitute
dinari money (Latin denarii was the 'd' of the pre decimal penny)
dish buttocks
dolly pretty, nice, pleasant
dona woman (perhaps from Italian donna or Lingua Franca dona)
dorcas term of endearment, 'one who cares'. The Dorcas Society was a ladies' church association of the nineteenth century, which made clothes for the poor.
drag clothes, esp. women's clothes (prob from Romani — indraka — skirt; also possibly from German - tragen - v. to wear (clothes))
doss bed
ecaf face (backslang)
eek face (abbreviation of ecaf)
ends hair
esong nose (backslang)
fantabulosa fabulous/wonderful
feele/freely/filly child/young (from the Italian figlio, for son)
fruit queen
funt pound
gelt money (Yiddish)
handbag money
hoofer dancer
HP (homy polone) effeminate gay man
jarry food, also mangarie (from Italian mangiare or Lingua Franca mangiaria)
jubes breasts
kaffies trousers
khazi toilet, also spelt carsey
lacoddy body
lallies (lylies) legs
lallie tappers feet
latty/lattie room, house or flat
lills hands
lilly police (Lilly Law)
lyles legs (prob. from "Lisle stockings")
lucoddy body
luppers fingers (Yiddish — lapa — paw)
mangarie food, also jarry (from Italian mangiare or Lingua Franca mangiaria)
martinis hands
measures money
meese plain, ugly (from Yiddish "meeiskeit, in turn from Hebrew מָאוּס repulsive, loathsome, despicable, abominable)
meshigener nutty, crazy, mental (from Yiddish, in turn from Hebrew מְשֻׁגָּע crazy)
metzas money (Italian -mezzi "means, wherewithal")
mince walk (affectedly)
naff awful, dull, hetero
nanti not, no, none (Italian — niente)
national handbag dole, welfare, government financial assistance
ogle look, admire
ogles eyes
oglefakes glasses
omi man (from Romance)
omi-palone effeminate man, or homosexual
onk nose (cf "conk")
orbs eyes
oven mouth (nanti pots in the oven = no teeth in the mouth)
palare pipe telephone ("talk pipe")
palliass back
park, parker give
plate feet; to fellate
palone woman (Italian paglione - "straw mattress", [cf. old Cant "hay-bag" = woman]); also spelled "polony" in Graham Greene's 1938 novel Brighton Rock
palone-omi lesbian
pots teeth
remould sex change
riah/riha hair (backslang)
riah zhoosher hairdresser
rough trade a working class or blue collar sex partner or potential sex partner; a tough, thuggish or potentially violent sex partner
scarper to run off (from Italian scappare, to escape or run away or from rhyming slang Scapa Flow, to go)
schlumph drink
scotch leg (scotch egg=leg)
screech mouth, speak
sharpy policeman (from — charpering omi)
sharpy polone policewoman
shush steal (from client)
shush bag hold-all
shyker/shyckle wig (mutation of the Yiddish sheitel)
slap makeup
so homosexual (e.g. "Is he 'so'?")
stimps legs
stimpcovers stockings, hosiery
strides trousers
strillers piano
switch wig
thews thighs
tober road (a Shelta word, Irish bóthar)
todd (Sloanne) alone
tootsie trade sex between two passive homosexuals (as in: 'I don't do tootsie trade')
trade sex, sex-partner, potential sex-partner
troll to walk about (esp. looking for trade)
vada/varder to see (from Italian — dialect vardare = guardare - look at) vardered — vardering
vera (lynn) gin
vogue cigarette (from Lingua Franca — fogus - "fire, smoke")
vogueress female smoker
willets breasts
yews (from French "yeux") eyes
zhoosh style hair, tart up, mince
(Romani - "zhouzho" - clean, neat) zhoosh our riah — style our hair
zhooshy showy

Polari in use

Omies and palones of the jury, vada well at the eek of the poor ome who stands before you, his lallies trembling.—taken from "Bona Law", a Round The Horne sketch written by Barry Took and Marty Feldman

Translation: "Men and women of the jury, look well at the face of the poor man who stands before you, his legs trembling."

So bona to vada...oh you! Your lovely eek and your lovely riah.—taken from "Piccadilly Palare", a song by Morrissey

Translation: "So good to see...oh you! Your lovely face and your lovely hair."

As feely ommes...we would zhoosh our riah, powder our eeks, climb into our bona new drag, don our batts and troll off to some bona bijou bar. In the bar we would stand around with our sisters, vada the bona cartes on the butch omme ajax who, if we fluttered our ogle riahs at him sweetly, might just troll over to offer a light for the unlit vogue clenched between our teeth.—taken from Parallel Lives, the memoirs of renowned gay journalist Peter Burton

Translation: "As young men...we would style our hair, powder our faces, climb into our great new clothes, don our shoes and wander/walk off to some great little bar. In the bar we would stand around with our gay companions, look at the great genitals on the butch man nearby who, if we fluttered our eyelashes at him sweetly, might just wander/walk over to offer a light for the unlit cigarette clenched between our teeth."

See also


  • Baker, Paul (2002) Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang. London: Continuum: ISBN 0-8264-5961-7
  • Baker, Paul (2002) Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men. London: Routledge: ISBN 0-415-26180-5
  • Elmes, Simon & Rosen, Michael (2002) Word of Mouth. Oxford University Press: ISBN 0-19-866263-7


  1. ^ Polari at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Polari". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ "Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition (online version)". Retrieved 2010-10-03. 
  4. ^ Quinion, Michael (1996). "How bona to vada your eek!". WorldWideWords. Retrieved February 20, 2006. 
  5. ^ Collins English Dictionary, Third Edition
  6. ^ a b c Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, [1861] Vol3, Dover Press, New York, 1968 p47
  7. ^ a b "British Spies: Licensed to be Gay." Time. 19 August 2008
  8. ^ Baker, Paul (2002) Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang. London: Continuum ISBN 0-8264-5961-7
  9. ^ "Gay men in the Merchant Marine, Liverpool Maritime Museum". Retrieved 2010-10-03. 
  10. ^ Partridge, Eric (1937) Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English
  11. ^ Punch and Judy. (with Illustrations by George Cruickshank). Thomas Hailes Lacey, London, 1859
  12. ^ a b Stevens, Christopher (2010). Born Brilliant: The Life Of Kenneth Williams. John Murray. p. 206.  
  13. ^ New Europe Online (24.11.2013)
  14. ^ Polari on iTunes
  15. ^ a b Quinion, Michael. "Naff".  
  16. ^ Waterhouse, Keith (1959). Billy Liar.   p35 "Naff off, Stamp, for Christ sake!" p46 "Well which one of them's got the naffing engagement ring?"
  17. ^ The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English Dalzell and Victor (eds.) Routledge, 2006, Vol. II p. 1349
  18. ^ "Definition for zhoosh - Oxford Dictionaries Online (World English)". Retrieved 2012-06-12. 

External links

  • Chris Denning's article on Polari with bibliography
  • Hugh Young's Lexicon of Polari
  • The Polari Bible compiled by The Manchester Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence
  • Polari Mission exhibit at the University of Manchester's John Rylands Library
  • Colin Richardson, The Guardian, 17 January 2005, "What brings you trolling back, then?"
  • BBC - Voices, An interview with four members of a project for older gay men. (In voice clip 2, Polari is spoken)
  • Polari FAQ
  • albumPolariJuha's
  • Liverpool Museums: The secret language of polari
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