Polari, otherwise known as Palarie, Parlary, or Palare, is a vibrant constructed language which saw its formations during a time when there was huge stigma attached to being openly LGBTQ. Thought to have originated in the late 19th century, the language flourished largely among gay men and lesbians in Britain during the early 20th century as a way of forging friendships and communicating with other members of the community without fear of persecution. It largely flew under the radar, with much of its lexicon indiscernible to those who did not recognize it.
For the most part, Polari was considered an oral language, with no publication or written documentation to suggest its usage beyond day-to-day conversation. Polari was a necessary means of communication for those working in occupations where physically presenting as LGBTQ was especially frowned upon, such as medicine and law. The consequences for being found out ranged from societal ostracization, to medical castration. By virtue of this, the language would never have the opportunity for ‘standardization‘, meaning the implementation of one universally agreed grammar usage and lexicon. Rather, the core of Polari consisted of some commonly accepted vocabulary, eventually flaking off into fringe terminology due to regional variation, with no strict rules or guidance.
It was also used to cultivate romantic relationships and stimulate liberated social lives for members of the community. If one member of the community wanted to try and find out if the person they were speaking with was safe to “come out” to, they might drop a word or phrase in Polari into conversation and note if the other party picked up on it.
the legacy of Polari has traces in the lexicon of the Anglophone world. For example, the term ‘Butch’ is still commonly used to describe masculinity, while ‘Camp’ alludes to someone of an effeminate nature.
Speakers would greet one another with specific phrases in public, using Polari as a medium for inter-community discussion or conversations pertaining to intimacies of their personal lives, such as relationships. Younger LGBTQ people could even be ‘integrated’ better into the community by ‘translating’ their birth-name into a Polari variation, e.g. Nathan would become Nanette.
It is estimated that there were tens of thousands of Polari speakers during its peak. Its decline came about for several reasons, the primary being the eventual decriminalization of homosexuality in the 1960s. As younger generations began to grow up in movements such as Pride and Gay Liberation, the idea of feeling anonymous and using a secret language had also become far too oppressive and out of touch with modern day LGBTQ values.
There are few speakers still alive to this day, but the legacy of Polari has traces in the lexicon of the Anglophone world. For example, the term ‘Butch’ is still commonly used to describe masculinity, while ‘Camp’ alludes to someone of an effeminate nature.
Polari is currently held in high esteem for its historical significance in safeguarding the LGBTQ community pre-1960. While now seen as a relic of more oppressive times, it serves as a tangible example of how language is fundamental in cultivating a true sense of community, and how it served as verbal protection against persecution.