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March 31, 2014 | by  | in Conspiracy Corner Opinion |
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Conspiracy Corner: Polari Cantare

Bona to vada your eek, readers! This week I draw your orbs to the dolly language of Polari, a bijou-known tongue once spoken by all the omi-palones and palone-omis looking for a trade without arousing suspicion from the sharpies. If that made no sense, well, that’s both a benefit and a detriment. Allow me to translate.

Polari is a ‘cryptolect’, an invented language deliberately meant to sound obtuse or bizarre to non-speakers. A strange mix of Mediterranean lingua franca and London street slang, it has been used in every stigmatised profession from sailors to thieves to prostitutes. Eventually, it was appropriated by the British gay subculture of the 1960s, which was in dire need of a secret code with which to identify themselves due to homosexuality being then illegal. What began as an impenetrable language to facilitate penetration allowed the lines of contact between queer people to coalesce, and ultimately turned the gay subculture into a true community.

A few odd Polari words that have made a home in our lexicon, like ‘zhoosh’ (“to smarten up”) and ‘naff’ (meaning “inferior, tacky”, a backronym of Not Available For Fucking or Normal As Fuck) and a lot of Polari is still currently used in common speech, namely words like ‘butch’, ‘drag’ and ‘camp’. But beyond these verbal time capsules, Polari has become a dead tongue. After Britain and Wales legalised homosexual acts between consenting adults in 1967, followed by the overall acceptance of the LGBT culture, and as support and overall acceptance of the LGBT movement continues to grow, the subsequent move from subculture to culture has eliminated the need for a secret language.

National Geographic estimates that a language dies every 14 days, but most of these losses are lamentable due to the extinguishment of diversity in ethnic cultures. The death of Polari wasn’t seen as that big of a loss by its users. The gay liberationists of the 1970s derided Polari’s gutter origins, deciding that a separation from the vulgarity of the language would lend credibility to the gay rights movement. Doing so would have removed the inherent ‘otherness’ that stigmatised the proto-LGBT community, and by removing the cloud of obscurity they could be seen for who they really were: ordinary people with the same capacity for love and acceptance as everyone else.

Communication helps form groups, but it can also build bridges between them. While Polari may have helped formed the foundations of the LGBT community, its return to obscurity was a necessary sacrifice.

bona – good
dolly – pretty, pleasant
eek – face
fantabulosa – wonderful
omi – man
omi-palone – homosexual man
orbs – eyes
palone – woman
palone-omi – lesbian
vada – see


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