Polari – England’s Secret Gay Language

Okay, how many of you knew there was a secret gay language in England in the 50s and 60s. Raise your hands. Hmm, not too many. It was a slang language called polari, sometimes polare. In those days gay men used it as a form of protection and secrecy. Outsiders would not be able to tell what you were talking about, and it also had a humorous and campy element. It was derived from a variety of sources, such as Italian words, rhyming slang, and back slang, which was saying a word as if it were spelled backwards. Theatre people and also gay men in the Merchant Marines also contributed various words. There were probably about 500 polari terms, and they included words for types of people, occupations, body parts, clothing, and sexual acts, and they were ideal for gossip.
I have a couple of examples to introduce you to Polari. In the late 60s there was a very popular radio comedy show on the BBC with characters named Julian and Sandy. They used a lot of polari words and most of the sketches had the word “bona” in the title, “bona” meant “nice.” It seemed in each sketch they had a different occupation. In this one, from 1965, they were interior decorators.
Click on songs to listen 

Julian & Sandy – Fave Homes & Bona Gardens (1965)

But here perhaps is a better example of polari, in the form of a song by English drag performer Lee Sutton, from a 1971 album by her called “Drag For Camp Followers.” The song is called “Bona Eke,” which means, as you’ll find out, “nice face.” After her song she gives a translation, but I’ll warn you that she wasn’t on the up and up with it, as a couple of the harmless translations she gives are not at all what the naughty meanings convey. But the audience went right along.

Lee Sutton – Bona Eke (1971)
She was always billed as “Lee Sutton, A Near Miss.”
Polari fell out of use for two main reasons. I mentioned above the radio series Julian & Sandy had in the late 1960’s. Well, that series was so popular that the general public learned many of the polari words, so some of the mystery of the language was erased.
Also, in 1967 homosexuality was decriminalized in England, so there was less need for a secret language. And the gay rights politics of the 70’s and 80’s considered it passé. But there is one interesting modern example, in musical form, by another singer from England, Morrissey. He was lead singer of the Smiths and is well known in his own right, but always was very ambiguous sexually. He’s recorded some very gay songs, but would never comment about his own orientation. In 1990 he surprisingly titled his new album “Bona Drag,” which starts out with his song called “Piccadilly Palare.” Watch out for the line “so bona to vada, oh you, your lovely eek and your lovely riah.” Which means “so nice to see you, with your lovely face and hair.”
 Off the rails I was and
Off the rails
I was happy to stay
On the rack I was
Easy meat, and a reasonably good buy
A reasonably good buy

The Piccadilly palare
Was just silly slang
Between me and the boys in my gang
“So Bona to Vada. OH YOU
Your lovely eek and
Your lovely riah”

We plied an ancient trade
Where we threw all life’s
Instructions away
Exchanging lies and digs (my way)
Cause in a belted coat
Oh, I secretly knew
That I hadn’t a clue

(No, no. No, no, no. You can’t get there that way. Follow me…)

The Piccadilly palare
Was just silly slang
Between me and the boys in my gang
Exchanging palare
You wouldn’t understand
Good sons like you

So why do you smile
When you think about Earl’s Court ?
But you cry when you think of all
The battles you’ve fought (and lost) ?
It may all end tomorrow
Or it could go on forever
In which case I’m doomed
It could go on forever
In which case I’m doomed


Update: One of my Facebook friends in London, Rupert Smith,
tells me Polari is still used to some extent…I think that’s bona.

Polari – British Gay Slang