The secret language of polari

Off duty on the Empire Orwell. Paul (top left), 'Belinda' (seated) and a Scottish colleague, taken in Hong Kong, 1956. Courtesy of Paul.

A potted history of polari

Polari was secretive language widely used by the British gay community from the 1900s to the 1970s. It was based on slang words deriving from a variety of different sources, including rhyming slang, and backslang (spelling words backwards).

In the eighteenth century it was mainly used in pubs around the London dock area. The language was soon picked up by merchant seafarers and brought back on ship. From the 1930s to 1970s the language was mostly used in gay pubs, theatre and on merchant ships.

The language helped gay men talk to each in front of straight people. It enabled gays to feel like part of an exclusive group. Polari was used in crew shows on ship and some straight shipmates picked up the language from these shows.

Polari was popularised by Julian and Sandy (played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams) in the 1960s BBC radio comedy show, Round the Horne. In the show the two played a couple of camp out-of-work actors.

In the 1970s the use of polari started declining. The 1967 sexual offences act made homosexuality legal, so there was less need for a secret form of language. The 1970s gay liberation movement found the language to be old fashioned and sexist. However, it was still used on ships up until the 1980s. Today polari is experiencing a mini revival due to recent stage shows of Round the Horne.

Polari in use

Listen to a former seafarer describing how he learnt polari and how he and his colleagues used it on board ships. 

Read a transcript of this audio clip.

Polari phrases

  • How bona to varda your dolly old eek!
    How good to see your dear old face!
  • Vada the dolly dish, shame about his bijou lallies
    Look at the attractive man, shame about his short legs
  • Can I troll round your lally?
    Can I have a look around your house?

Polari-English dictionary

  • ajax: nearby (from adjacent?)
  • basket: the bulge of male genitals through clothes
  • batts: shoes
  • bevvy: drink
  • bijou: small
  • bod: body
  • bold: daring
  • bona: good
  • butch: masculine; masculine lesbian
  • camp: effeminate (origin: KAMP = Known As Male Prostitute)
  • capello: hat
  • carsey: toilet, also spelt khazi
  • charper: search
  • charpering omi: policeman
  • cod: naff, vile
  • crimper: hairdresser
  • dish: an attractive male; buttocks
  • dizzy: scatterbrained
  • dolly: pretty, nice, pleasant
  • drag: clothes, especially women's clothes
  • ecaf: face (backslang)
  • eek: face (abbreviation of ecaf)
  • ends: hair
  • esong: nose
  • fantabulosa: wonderful
  • feele: child
  • fruit: queen
  • gelt: money
  • glossies: magazines
  • handbag: money
  • hoofer: dancer
  • jarry: food, also mangarie
  • kaffies: trousers
  • lallies: legs
  • latty: room, house or flat
  • lills: hands
  • lilly: police (Lilly Law)
  • luppers: fingers
  • mangarie: food, also jarry
  • measures: money
  • meese: plain, ugly (from Yiddish)
  • meshigener: nutty, crazy, mental
  • metzas: money
  • mince: walk (affectedly)
  • naff: bad, drab
  • nanti: not, no
  • national handbag: dole
  • nishta: nothing, no
  • oglefakes: glasses
  • ogles: eyes
  • omi: man
  • omi-polone: effeminate man, or homosexual
  • onk: nose
  • orbs: eyes
  • palare pipe: telephone
  • palliass: back (as in part of body)
  • park: give
  • plate: feet
  • polari: chat, talk
  • polone: woman
  • pots: teeth
  • riah/riha: hair
  • riah shusher: hairdresser
  • scarper: to run off
  • scotch: leg
  • sharpy: policeman
  • shush: steal (from client)
  • shush bag: holdall
  • shyker / shyckle: wig
  • slap: makeup
  • strillers: piano
  • thews: thighs
  • trade: sex
  • troll: to walk about (especially looking for trade)
  • vada/varda: see