A QUEER CODE: Polari, the secret language you need to know

MA student Sian Stenson writes about Ian Holdsworth’s event and talk on Polari, the ‘secret gay language of Britain’.

Please note this contains language which some people may find upsetting.

Literary types! Pay extra close attention to LGBTQ+ History Month this year. The theme for 2020 is “Poetry, Prose and Plays”, so there are plenty of talks, events and opportunities right up your alley.

One such event you might have missed was Ian Holdsworth’s fascinating talk on Polari, the ‘secret gay language of Britain’.

What is Polari?

Some Polari you might already know:

  • Zhoosh, zhuzh – to style, to ‘do up’. e.g. ‘Give your fringe a quick zhoosh, it’s gone flat.’
  • Naff – rubbish. (Urban legend has it that ‘naff’ is an acronym for ‘not available for fucking’).
  • Meat and Two Veg – Penis and testicles
  • Drag – clothing
  • Camp ­– funny, flamboyant
  • Dish – ­ More commonly these days, an attractive man. E.g. ‘My nan says Bradley Walsh is a bit of a dish.’
  • Trade – casual sexual partner
  • *Butch/Femme – masculine/feminine*

*In the original sense. The terms ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ have evolved in usage over time, and have much more nuanced and varied meaning.

This ‘lost’ language was given new verve by Holdsworth, who discussed its origins, usage and modern resurgence.

Before the legalisation of homosexuality, being able to identify and communicate with your LGBT peers through a secret language could make the difference between life and death – especially for sex workers. Polari, therefore, was an essential part of British Queer culture until the 1970s.

The etymological roots of the language are a delightful pick’n’mix, with phrases plucked from languages such as thieves’ cant, the maritime lingua franca, Yiddish, Shelta, and the deliciously named Parlyaree.

A common bond between these seemingly incongruous groups were out-of-work sailors. Between berths, sailors would pick up work in the theatre, circuses, in crime and sex work. Language was naturally adapted and exchanged across all these branches, and common parlance emerged.

Speaking Polari

You’ll already speak a little Polari without knowing it. Perhaps you’ve ‘zhooshed’ your hair or put on some ‘slap’ in the hope of pulling some ‘trade’?

Advanced Polari:

  • Nada to vada in the larder – a small penis. (And there’s nothing wrong with that!)
  • Cavalier and Roundhead – uncircumcised and circumcised penis. (Makes you see the English Civil War in a new light.)
  • Bona to vada your dolly old eek! – Nice to see your pretty face!
  • Can I troll round your lally? – Can I look/go around your house?

This all sounds a bit ‘white-cis-male’… (Content warning: racism, misogyny.)

We cannot overlook the fact that Polari is in places wildly problematic. A product of its time, there are some less than palatable terms for women and people of colour, and for those not fitting gay male ideals of the time.

“Minge” – vulva, “beef curtains” – labia, “schvartze” – a black man, “schinwhars” – a Chinese man.


While we should not erase the record of the misogynist and racist aspects of our heritage, some words are best kept in the dictionary/history books and not in our mouths.

Why do we need a not-so-secret secret language? We don’t need to hide from Lilly Law (the police) anymore.

An archive of our history, of which Polari is an important part, is a precious thing. Additionally, some people may tell you that ‘Queer History’ is no longer relevant, because we’ve solved homophobia. But while we may no longer be thrown in jail in this country for simply existing (except for refugees) things aren’t exactly peachy.

So on days where you might feel like repeatedly smashing your head into your desk, we can find inspiration in a language made and spoken by a community of disparate – but allied – outsiders.

Also, what’s not to love about a queer pirate secret code? It’s the best film never made.

But we already have Drag Race. Isn’t that our gay/queer language?

It can feel as though “YASSSSSSS! QWEEEEEEEEN!” is a birth right of The Gays™, but you are doubtless aware of the controversy surrounding Drag lingo.

The mainstream success of Drag Race has audiences facing difficult questions about misogyny, racism and transphobia in the queer community.  Much of the language of drag is taken from the Ball Scene (think Paris is Burning), and comes from our African-American and Trans siblings. So it’s a little appropriative for white LGBT and non-LGBT members to give shade, hunty. It’s not nice to take things without asking first.

But all is not lost, dear Drag Racer. Polari has gifted us with much language in the Drag game – including ‘Drag’ and ‘Queen’!

Polari in Contemporary Culture

Hungry for more?

You can listen to Polari in action in Putting on the Dish, a short film made in 2015. It’s free to view and focuses on a conversation between two men in Polari.

If you want to incorporate Polari into your vernacular, there is, of course, an app. Check it out!

To find out more on the subject, Professor Paul Baker at the University of Lancaster has written several books and articles on the subject. Fantabulosa! The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language is available to borrow from the YSJ library.

Many thanks to Ian Holdsworth, York LGBT forum and York LGBT History month for putting on this event. Additional thanks to Paul Baker, whose work informed the talk and this article.

By Sian Stenson