In the past few years, stigmatization towards the LGBTQ+ community has gone down drastically. But, It wasn’t always this way. In the past, those of the LGBTQ+ community faced harsh discrimination and threats to their lives simply because of who they were. Because of this, people had to create ways to communicate with others in their community without others knowing. Polari was one such way of communication.
Polari— also known as Palari, Palare, or Parlaree; was a slang commonly used by Britans LGBTQ+ community in the 1800s to 1900s. It was also used by navy merchants and actors. Polari was often used in British plays going into the 20th century. But the used of Polari in the LGBTQ+ community only became necessary after the second World War. Because of the prosecution and bias towards those of the LGBTQ+ community, especially gay men, after the war, people had to use Polari to communicate with others in their community without being arrested for their sexuality.
Polari is a mix of Italian, Yiddish, French, and a variety of slang and jargon. Thieves’ Cant— a secret language used by thieves, beggars, and hustlers; is one of the many origins of Polari.
Polari wasn’t a real language, and was instead seen as an anti-language, a language used by communities that are ostracized or stigmatized. Because Polari isn’t a real language, different words can have different spellings and meanings in Polari. There are around 20 core words that most people who speak Polari know. These core words include bevvy (drink), bona (good), cod (awful), eek (face), and riah (hair).
While most straight people didn’t understand Polari, it was used very often in British plays and shows. The most famous users of Polari were Julian and Sandy, characters from the BBC comedy show “Round the Horne”.
As the stigmatization towards those of the LGBTQ+ community lessened, the need for Polari died out, and the number of speakers dwindled.
For more information on Polari, I would recommend reading Fabulosa!: The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language.