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Associate Professor Kozlovska Anna

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Associate Professor Kozlovska Anna

Ukrainian Academy of Banking of National Bank of Ukraine, Sumy

Polary: a British slang as the result of diffusion of culture and language

Slang... an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably... The wholesome fermentation or eductation of those processes eternally active in language, by which froth and specks are thrown up, mostly to pass away, though occasionally to settle and permanently crystallise.

Walt Whitman

This paper is devoted to the study of the topic "Slang", it's origin and different changes during its evolution.

Slang - informal, nonstandard words and phrases, generally shorter lived than the expressions of ordinary colloquial speech, and typically formed by creative, often witty juxtapositions of words or images. Slang can be contrasted with jargon (technical language of occupational or other groups) and with argot or cant (secret vocabulary of underworld groups), but the borderlines separating these categories from slang are greatly blurred, and some writers use the terms cant, argot, and jargon in a general way to include all the foregoing meanings.

Each society can be divided into many groups regarding to interests, tastes, professional affiliation, political and social points of view, etc. The members of the groups may belong to several ones at the same time, so they will be aware of all the peculiarities concerning these groups. Variety of such groups leads to the deviation from some language standards and creation of so-called "micro languages" within these groups. Each of these "micro languages" develops within the boundaries of one particular group. Such languages are not spread far and wide as they are non-universal ones.

Polari - a British gay slang - is the object of the research. Social, historical and linguistic peculiarities of Polari are the subject of the investigation.

^ The actuality of the course paper is based on the fact that modern linguistics tends to study social, historical and communicative characteristics of language phenomena, different kinds of slang included.

The aim of the research is as follows: to find out and to study social, historical and linguistic aspects of Polari.

The aim and the subject determine the following tasks:

  • to give the definition and the essence of Polary;

  • to find out social and linguistic reasons for slanging;

  • to study characteristics of slang and the process of its diffusion;

  • to observe the uses of slang, attitudes toward it and the ways of the word formation in slang;

  • to analyse social, historical, linguistic peculiarities of Polari.

Social origin of the slang and its spreading through Mass Media

Polari (also seen as 'Palare') is a gay slang language, which has now almost died out. Gay slang in Britain dates back to the involvement of the homosexual subculture with the criminal "underworld". The homosexual subculture of the Eighteenth Century mixed with the gypsies, tramps & thieves of popular song to produce a rich cross-fertilisation of customs, phrases and traditions. As the Industrial revolution dramatically changed settlement patterns, more and more people drifted away from villages and small communities and moved to larger towns in search of work and opportunity. In these larger urban locations, the scope for the development of communities of outcasts substantially increased. The growth of molly houses (private spaces for men to meet, drink, have sex together and practice communal rituals) encouraged the creation of a molly identity. A linguistic culture developed, feeding into that profession traditionally associated with poofs and whores: theatre.

It is difficult to find any written material about Polari as what little used to exist was out of print. However, in the last few years, more and more people have been finding out about it, and several web sites and magazine articles have been written. Polari featured heavily in the "Julian and Sandy" sketches on the BBC radio program "Round the Home" in the late 60s, and this is how a lot of people first heard of Polari. A few words like 'bona' can still be seen in gay publications, used for camp effect. There are even hairdressers in London and Brighton called "Bona Riah". The BBC had a succession of hugely successful radio comedy programmes which have never been matched since. The BBC itself has a strong tendency to be nostalgic about them, calling them the Golden Age of Radio Comedy, though these days the gold mainly ends up in the till, now it has discovered how many other people have fond memories of the shows and are prepared to pay to hear them again on CD or cassette. The best known is almost certainly the Goon Show, attested by its Usenet newsgroup and its fan clubs in North America, Britain and elsewhere. Others included Take It from Here, Hancock's Half Hour and Round The Home. This last show was introduced by Kenneth Home, an urbane straight man, who had previously partnered Richard Murdoch in Much Binding in the Marsh, a send-up of a small RAF station "somewhere in England", but who in the intervening years had had an extremely successful business career. He was partnered by Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick and Betty Marsden, with scripts by Marty Feldman and Barry Took.

One element of the show, which was stereotypical in its layout, always featured a pair of screamingly camp young men: "Hello, I'm Julian and this is my friend Sandy", overplayed by Williams and Paddick to an extent which robbed it of much of its latent homophobia (particularly as both were known to be gay), though one cannot imagine a similar duo being allowed anywhere near a BBC microphone in this supposedly more permissive but also infinitely more sensitive age. These two spoke in a slangy language which was virtually incomprehensible to anyone hearing it for the first time, though by repetition week by week a mental glossary could be constructed. "How bona to vada your eek!" was a recurring expression; there were references to "butch omis" and to "omipalones"; they always "trolled" everywhere, though their "lallies" weren't up to much of that; things were "naph", "bona" or sometimes "fantabulosa". This was not a constructed language, but a secret vocabulary, a cant or argot in the linguist's term, which uses the grammar and syntax of English as well as most of its core vocabulary. It was in fairly common use in the theatre and in related branches of show business such as ballet and the circus, to the extent that a book on the Round the Home series remarked that Williams and Paddick often really did speak like that in real life. It is variously called Palare, Palyaree, Palary or Polari from its own word for "talk" or "speech".

Round The Home was tremendously popular, attracting about 9 million listeners a week. And every week, thanks to Polari, Julian and Sand made a mockery of the BBC's censors. For example, in one episode, they are domestic helps and have been shown into a kitchen where they are expected to get to work. "I can't work in "ere," complains Julian. "All the dishes are dirty!" "Ooh speak for yourself, ducky!" retorts Sandy.

This is a clever triple innuendo. The audience would probably get the use of the word dish as an attractive young man, as in "Isn't he dishy?", but hardened Polari speakers also know that dish means anus, which would afford them an extra special laugh. Julian and Sandy were subversive in other ways too. At a time when most of the other fictional gay men and lesbians in the media usually ended up killing themselves in the final reel, this cheerfully unapologetic pair of queens made for a refreshing change.

^ Historical processes that influenced the formation of Polari

Polari itself was never clearly defined: an ever-changing collection of slang from various sources including Italian, English (backwards slang, rhyming slang), circus slang, canal- speak, Yiddish and Gypsy languages. It is impossible to tell which slang words are real Polari.

Linguists still argue about where it came from. The larger part of its vocabulary is certainly Italian in origin, but nobody seems to know how the words got into Britain. Some experts say its origins lie in the lingua franca of the shores of the Mediterranean, a pidgin in use in the Middle Ages and afterwards as a medium of communication between sailors and traders from widely different language groups, the core of this language being Italian and Occitan. Quite a number of British sailors learnt the lingua franca. On returning home and retiring from the sea it is supposed that many of them became vagabonds or travellers, because they had no other means of livelihood; this threw them into contact with roving groups of entertainers and fairground people, who picked up some of the pidgin terms and incorporated them into their own canting private vocabularies.

However, other linguists point to the substantial number of native Italians who came to Britain as entertainers in the early part of the nineteenth century, especially the Punch and Judy showmen, organ grinders and peddlars of the 1840s. Much of parlarey, the travelling showmen's language, appears to be derived from the lingua franca or the vocabulary of travelling actors and showmen during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Specifically theatrical parlyaree included phrases such as joggering omee (street musician), slang a dolly to the edge (to show and work a marionette on a small platform outside the performance booth in order to attract an audience) and climb the slanging-tree (perform onstage). Nanty dinarly (having no money) also had a peculiarly theatrical translation in the phrase "There's no treasury today, the ghost doesn't walk." The disappearance of large numbers of traveling costermongers and cheapjacks by the early twentieth century effectively denied the language its breathing space.

By the mid-twentieth century, there had also been a cross-over to a recognisably gay form of slang, with polari used by the gay community to communicate in code in elaborate forms. Words such as trade and ecaf (backslang for face, shortened to eek) became part of gay subculture. Blagging trade (picking up sexual partners), zhoosingyour riah (doing your hair), trolling to a bijou bar (stepping into a gay club) and dishing the dirt (recounting gossip) all became popular coded phrases to describe and encode an emerging homosexual lifestyle. By the 1950's, with secret homosexual clubs emerging in swinging London and the Wolfenden Committee discussing the possibility of law reform around (homo) sexuality, it seems appropriate that polari should raise its irreverent head.

Polari became an appropriate tool with which to confuse and confound the naff omees (straight men). It traveled the world via the sea queens, who incorporated navy slang into a new version of the language and also accommodated local dialects and phrases.

^ Linguistic peculiarities and features of Polari

But Polari is a linguistic mongrel. Words from Romany (originally an Indian dialect), Shelta (the cant of the Irish tinkers), Yiddish, back slang, rhyming slang and other non­standard English are interspersed with words of Italian origin. So it would not be surprising to find that both the Italian showman and the lingua franca theories are right, each contributing words at different stages in Polari's development. This might indeed explain the substantial number of synonyms noted at various times. However, the vocabulary is not well recorded, and now may never be, because it was normal until quite recently for linguists to ignore such low-life forms, which rarely turned up in print (and then only in partial glossaries). But we do know that a few of Polari's terms have made it across the language barrier into semi-standard English, much of it seeming to come to us via Cockney: karsey, a lavatory; mankey, poor, bad or tasteless; ponce, a pimp; savvy to know, understand; and scarper to run away.

The rest have stayed within the theatrical and circus worlds, and have also been incorporated particularly into the private languages of some homosexual groups, as Julian and Sandy make very clear.

Many of these travelling people worked all over Europe, and as a result a fair number of the old Parlyaree words resembled Italian. The music halls of the 19th Century eventually replaced these wandering entertainers, and out of music halls developed the theatre. So Parlyaree gradually morphed into Polari (or Palare as it was earlier known), being picked up by gay actors and dancers - who introduced it onto London's gay scene.

But there were lots of other influences - The East End of London was full of vibrant communities, and so we find bits of Yiddish (schwartzer: black man, schnozzle: nose) coming into Polari. The docks were popular cruising grounds, and gay men would go there to pick up sailors - who had their own slang called Lingua Franca. As a result, bits of Lingua Franca appear in Polari. Then throw in some Cockney Rhyming Slang and the less well- known backslang - the practice of saying a word as if it's spelt backwards (hair = riah, face=ecaf). Finally, in World War II add some American terms (butch, cruise) as gay men befriended and entertained homesick American G.I.s, and then throw in a few words stolen from 1960s drug culture (doobs: drugs, randy comedown: a desire for sex after taking drugs) for good measure. The result is a complex, constantly changing form of language which appears slightly different to whoever uses it.

^ Social and political background as formative factors of Polari

Polari flourished in the repressive 1950s, where the control of post-war sexual morality was viewed as a priority and prosecutions against gay men reached record levels. Under these unpleasant conditions, gay men were subjected to a variety of horrors. Electroshock treatment, imprisonment, blackmail, hormones that made men grow breasts - the medical and legal professions got their knickers in such a twist trying to find newer and more evil ways to torture gay men throughout the 50s.

By the 1960s, the political situation had begun to change. Polari was used less to cautiously "out" yourself, and more for chatting with friends. Its vocabulary - full of words to do with clothing (lally-drags: trousers, ogle-fakes: spectacles) and parts of the body (thews: arms, luppers: fingers) and evaluative adjectives (bona: good, cod: bad), reflects what it was most often used for - gossiping about potential sexual partners with your mates, while your target was in earshot. "Vada that bona omee ajax - the one with nanti riah!" translates to "Lookat that nice man over there - the one with no hair!" Use it in the club, or on the tube - you could spill all of the details about what you got up to last night, without anyone being the wiser.

However, in the 1970s, Polari started to fade from people's memories. Julian and Sandy had represented a swan-song of sorts in any case. In 1967 (the same year that Round the Home was at its peak, winning the award for best comedy radio programme), the legal situation for the average gay man was improved with the implementation of the Wolfenden Report's recommendations often years earlier. Homosexuality was partially decriminalised (although there were still a variety of ways that men could be prosecuted for having gay sex), and as a result, there was less of a need for a secret language. In addition to that, Julian and Sandy gave Polari a kind of doomed respectability - they had inadvertently blurted out the secret via the radio, into 9 million homes a week. What was the point of using Polari when everyone listened to Round The Home and was able to get the gist of what you were saying?

And ultimately, there were political reasons for ditching Polari - it was associated with oppression, and the early Gay Liberationists wanted to put all of that behind them. It was rather easy to criticise Polari as being sexist, racist and brimming over with internalised homophobia. Gay magazines of the early 70s are quick to cast Polari as keeping gay men in a ghetto. One writer warns that gay culture is going to become consumed by a "language of body parts ". And Polari, with its camp bitchy overtones was so last decade. This was the era when harmless, much-loved John Inman was picketed outside Brighton's Dome Hall by gay men for "contributing to the television distortion of the image of homosexuals".

By the beginning of the 1980s, Polari had all but vanished from the gay scene, and in place of the fey Polari speakers, were American influences - butch was in, and the Malboro Man look - muscles, leather, denim, facial hair, uniforms, big boots etc. became fashionable.

The clone was bora, and with minor modifications still exists today. Suddenly going to the gym became a popular pastime and the gay scene was in danger of becoming populated with butch Marys who took their masculinity and muscle tone ever-so seriously. Butch gay men aren't supposed to speak Polari - instead they grunt and show you a coloured handkerchief so you know what they're into.

However, in the 1990s, the situation changes again. With more people becoming relaxed about sexuality, Polari is undergoing a revival of interest. It's now possible to view it as part of gay heritage - a weapon that was used to fight oppression, and something that gay men can be proud of again. Camp is no longer viewed as apolitical - for example, the London branch of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence use "High Polari" in their blessings, sermons and canonisations - adding a bit of religious mystique while also acknowledging gay history within their ceremonies. And anyone who wants to add some authentic mid-20th century atmosphere in their film, book or play or pop song about gay men can drop a few words of Polari into their script for instant credibility. Polari has become a short-hand to represent being gay in the '50s or '60s in the same way that a hula hoop or a space-hopper represents the 1970s.

However, Polari still occupies a controversial position in the hearts of contemporary gay men. Last year a phone debate in a gay free-sheet unearthed a number of conflicting, and at times strange attitudes towards it. Some callers were quick to dismiss Polari as camp nonsense, only spoken by unfashionable people who lived "in the sticks" (i.e. outside London). Such words are "neither useful, relevant or reflect the queer society we live in today," complained one caller. Others argued that it was harmless fun, and to ignore Polari is to do an injustice to the men and women who lived through more oppressive times. The free- sheet joined in, labeling Polari as "evil".

It's unlikely that Polari will ever be revived to the extent that it was used in the 50s - but that's no shame. Without realizing it, many of the words that people consider to be "gay slang" were once part of Polari's lexicon - chicken, trade, butch, camp, cottage etc. These words, which are more useful in describing gay experiences because they don't have straight equivalents, have survived while other words like lally: legs, poll: wig, order: go etc. have fallen into disuse. That's not to say that it can't be fun to use them occasionally. And in any case, little bits of Polari have even been incorporated into mainstream slang. For example - the word naff was originally used as a Polari acronym meaning "Not Available For F..". Now it simply refers to something that's tasteless. Clearly, those poor confused straights must have heard it - "oh don't bother with him, he's naff", inferred it meant something bad, and started using it themselves - not realising that the word was originally an insult hurled at them.

^ Polari: the forming of the vocabulary

So it would not be surprising to find that both the Italian showman and the lingua franca theories are right, each contributing words at different stages in Polari's development. This might indeed explain the substantial number of synonyms noted at various times. However, the vocabulary is not well recorded, and now may never be, because it was normal until quite recently for linguists to ignore such low-life forms, which rarely turned up in print (and then only in partial glossaries). But we do know that a few of Polari's terms have made it across the language barrier into semi-standard English, much of it seeming to come to us via Cockney: karsey, a lavatory; mankey, poor, bad or tasteless; ponce, a pimp; savvy to know, understand; and scarper to run away.

The rest have stayed within the theatrical and circus worlds, and have also been incorporated particularly into the private languages of some homosexual groups, as Julian and Sandy make very clear. Some writers have sought to claim Polari exclusively for the gay community, renaming it Gayspeak. In the 1990s it certainly seems to be heavily used by some city-based British gays (but only male gays, not lesbians), who have invented new terms like nante 'andbag for "no money" (handbag here being a self-mocking example of metonymy). However, it can scarcely have always been so, unless every fairground showman, circus performer, strolling player, cheapjack and Punch and Judy man in history was gay, which seems somewhat unlikely.

There are other characteristics of the language of Julian and Sandy. They tend to make diminuitives of nouns: would you like a bijou drinkette? for example. They also playfully invent words based on Italian models, such as fantabulosa. And they use a few terms which seem to be Polari and yet are unrecorded in glossaries.

^ A quick Polari lexicon:

batt = shoe; bevvy = drink (or possibly an abbreviation of beverage, or both); bijou = small; bimbo = dupe, sucker; bona = good; camp = excessive or showy or affecting mannerisms of the opposite sex; charper = to search (leading to charpering omi = policeman); dolly = nice or pleasant; dona = woman (hence the Australian slang word donah)-, drag = clothes (and so possibly via the gay world to the informal but widespread use meaning to dress in the clothes of the opposite sex)-, eek = face; fantabulosa = excellent; feele = child (hence feely omi = a young man, sometimes specifically an underaged young man); lally = leg; lattie = house, lodgings; leucoddy = body; naph = bad (quite possibly the origin of the current British English slang term naff)\ nante = none or nothing; ogle = eye (hence ogleriah = eyelash); omi = man; omipalone = homosexual; palare = talk; paione; woman; riah = hair (possibly back-slang); tosheroon = half a crown (two shillings and sixpence), possibly a much-corrupted form of the Italian mezzo caroon; troll, = walk, wander; vada = look; walloper = dancer; zhoosh = fix, tidy.

And perhaps you might like to be able to count to ten in Polari: una, duey, trey, quater, chinker, sey, setter, otto, nobber, dacha.

But is Polari dead anyway? Well, no, not that dead. The London Order of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (a group of gay men who dress as nuns in order to combine the political with the comedic) have started using Polari in their ceremonies - in order to lend spiritual weight to such occasions. For the Sisters, Polari is to gay men what Latins is to Catholics. However, from what I know of these events, the Polari that is used is as scripted as the Polari employed by Julian and Sandy - and even more bizarre - it's in the form of a monologue: a long way from its original bitchy, gossipy, cruisy usage in the bars, clubs and buses of 1950s/60s London. Then again, Polari has never remained the same thing for very long, as the lexica can testify. Perhaps the appropriation of it by the Sisters is simply a postmodern revival?

So while it's important that a situation never arises where gay men need to use a secret language again, we do ourselves no favours by distancing ourselves completely from Polari. Distinctions between the two, however, are now more blurred than ever. And while gay still means something different from straight, there continues to be a place for Polari.

Slang has become one of the most eccentric and extraordinary phenomena on the way of evolution of different languages. Its appearance can be explained from the linguistic point of view: lexical elements, escaped from dialectal, professional, taboo and simply non-standard speech after some transformations and even after gaining some other lexical meaning and acquiring a new semantic field of connotative meanings become new lexical units having a certain spheres of practical application. Many factors may cause such processes in language forming: not only development of the language itself but also social environment, political events, demographic movements and influence of other geographically and socially and correlating languages and dialects should be taken into consideration. Slanging has different reasons: this "sublanguage" sometimes can extend the boundaries of traditional usage of lexical units. Slang can spread not only in the process of verbal communication but also with the help of different means such as mass media, literature (some slang words and expressions have existed since the Middle Age). Changing social circumstances may stimulate the spread of slang. Slang words often introduce new concepts and as it has been said before they give new shades and expressions - satirical, ironical and even shocking for the old, established concepts even if they are of a great respect. Slanging may appear to be very convenient in some situations when it can be used as more comfortable way of communicating, when the information is supposed to be disguised from the foreigners. Due to these features and peculiarities slang finds many spheres of use. Ways of its forming are quite different: changes in meaning, generalizations, abbreviations, clipping, shortening, meaning shifts and alterations, affixation, coinage and other ways. These linguistic means and methods of synthesis may be applied to any language in order to produce new lexical elements. This thesis may find the proof in the 2nd chapter of this paper: Polari has become a result of diffusion of different languages and cultures. Supported by radical social changes and political influence the language being only a dialect became a self-dependent language with its own number of speakers. Taking into consideration the fact that the slang and its "users" are rather queer part of society (a sexual minority is meant), the language suffered a great pursuance caused by the political and social situation of that times. The slang has spread not only through the British territory, it has also dissolved in other languages and some of its


Associate Professor Kozlovska Anna iconAssociate Professor Kozlovska Anna

Associate Professor Kozlovska Anna iconAssociate Professor Kozlovska Anna
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