Polari was a system of backslang bordering on an entire language, developed in the days before homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain in 1967 (and yes, it was that late). It existed so gay men could communicate and discuss their experiences without raising too many eyebrows. Some words like camp and cottaging still have clear connections with gay culture, while others — such as bijou, blag and naff — have crossed over into the modern lexicon (ironically in the case of naff which was much punchier once than it may sound today).
The term Polari itself comes from the Italian parlare, “to talk” and emerged from the East End markets of London alongside Cockney. It was also associated with Punch and Judy shows and travelling fairs and circuses — hence its colourful vibrancy and mix of Italian, Yiddish and Romani words.
Putting On The Dish (above) is an eye-opening short film by London-based duo Brian and Karl set in 1960s London — or Eine as one of the characters calls it. And what starts off as a quaint look back at a quirky way of talking soon gives way to a dramatic tale of hypocrisy and mistrust.
Here’s a glossary of some of the terms used in the film. For a full translation click here, or try Paul Baker’s comprehensive dictionary Fantabulosa.
- Three drags and a spit – a cigarette
- Bona bats – nice shoes
- Luppers – fingers
- Strillers – piano
- Flowery – house (from ‘flowery dell’ meaning ‘prison cell’)
- Bencove – good friend
- Nanti bully fake – no luck
- She vaggeried straight to the crimper – she travelled to the hairdresser
- Shove her shyckle up her Khyber – stick her wig up her arse
- Blowing the groundsels – sex on the ground
- A stretcher case – exhausted
- Brandy latch – toilet
- Corybungus – backside
- Maria – semen
- Farting crackers – trousers
- Palare pipe – telephone
- Lily law – police
- Sharpie flashed his cartso in the carsey – an undercover policeman entrapped cottagers by showing them his winkle (obvs).