Polari

Posted on October 27, 2004


Polari was a secret language spoken by gay men and lesbians in Britain throughout the first half of the 20th century. As well as describing the language, Polari itself means “to talk”.

The word had long fallen into disuse when a support group in London dedicated to caring for older lesbians and gay men resurrected it in 1993. A pamphlet about the organisation calls Polari the language of the “love that dared not speak its name”.

The reference is to Lord Alfred Douglas’s (Bosie) poem “Two Loves” (1894), written when homosexuality was illegal, which set the tone for a way of talking about gayness – characterising it as a lacuna, a deafening silence, lacking the situation and the words to speak directly. In the poem, Bosie refers to it metaphorically, substituting the figurative for the literal, transforming “love” into a person, eloquent in his muteness:

“…Sweet youth,
Tell me why, sad and sighing, thou dost rove
These pleasant realms? I pray thee speak me sooth
What is thy name?’ He said, ‘My name is Love.’
Then straight the first did turn himself to me
And cried, ‘He lieth, for his name is Shame,
But I am Love, and I was wont to be
Alone in this fair garden, till he came
Unasked by night; I am true Love, I fill
The hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame.’
Then sighing said the other, ‘Have thy will,
I am the Love that dare not speak its name’.”

Jeremy Bentham once exasperatedly described figures of speech as “troublesome to manage” but regrettably essential to speech and thought. This is most true for subcultures with no legitimate expression of their own: figuration is a condition of their existence, part of the air they breathe.

For many decades, Polari’s metaphors were public protection as well as private enrichment. Between 1921 and 1963, arraignments for “gross indecency” in Britain rose from 178 to 2,437 per year. Alan Turing, the mathematician who had worked brilliantly to penetrate the Nazis’ “Enigma” code in the 1940s, killed himself in 1954 after being arrested for sexual deviancy. There were many lesser–known victims. This was not the time for general understanding; this was a time for other kinds of secret codes and underground signals.

Figures of speech are indirect by nature. They may gesture towards a particular meaning, but there is always a shadow of ambiguity, requiring a frame of reference to access understanding. This is Pierre Bourdieu’s symbolic power, “a power that can be exercised only if it is recognised, that is misrecognised as arbitrary”.

Here, Polari’s achievement was to augment the grammar of mainstream English with a dense tissue of allusions, images and analogies, granting its speakers common ground, a safe verbal “space” for intimate conversation.

The antennae of the language were ever alert to the possibility of “outing” fellow Polari–speakers. Dudley Cave, an interviewee for the Channel 4 documentaryStorm in a Teacup, called Polari phrases “secret passwords. You could identify with other gay people if you thought they might be – you could drop a word in like ‘camping about’, or ‘I’m going camping, but I’m taking my tent’.”

People not privy to the figurative significance of Dudley’s language may only have wondered why he liked spending so much time outdoors. Others, those inside Polari’s frame of reference, could recognise and respond to the gesture. Such occasional use of a “gay” word or expression in order to establish someone else’s sexuality can be seen as quintessential Polari – and, more recently, as an example of the “cooperative discourse” of Gay English, when two or more holders of a secret identity are able to disclose these identities without having to be explicit, as commentators like Paul Baker have observed.

In 1967, Britain’s social paradigm shifted: the Sexual Offences Act was passed, conditionally legalising homosexual intercourse between consenting adults above the age of 21. With the need for a secret language ostensibly removed, Polari went into decline.

Polari’s legacy, though, endures in camp language. In contrast to the Orwellian extremes of politically–correct speech, purged of all ambiguity, camp is creative. The verbal equivalent of a raised eyebrow or a knowing look, its innuendo implies, not labels, and in so doing defies the bigoted belief that some identities are natural or privileged.

In camp, as once in Polari, words are not mirrors: they are how we make our world, open to change, not simply uttered but performed and processed. Their figures of speech retain the capacity to subvert. Polari may no longer exist in its original form, but its metaphorical practice, once symbolic of its fugitive status, has in camp become a potent means of social critique. Cynical, smutty, rapid–fire and often extremely funny, camp respects no one. And we are all the better for it.

First published in openDemocracy

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Posted in: Features