The Editor writes all about the word Polari, and explains why the magazine is called Polari.
In 1950s Britain, when it was a punishable offence to be homosexual, a slang called Polari flourished. Polari provided a way for gay people to talk to each other in code. If you wanted to say to a friend, for example, “Look at that man next to me, I’d like to take him to bed,” you could say, ‘Vada that omee ajax, I’d arva that’. ‘Vada’ means ‘look, or look at’. An ‘omee’ is a man (whereas a ‘palone’ is a woman, and an ‘omee-palone’ a gay man). Ajax means ‘next to’ (or more properly ‘adjacent to’). ‘Arva’ means, loosely, ‘have sex with’.
In this pre-liberation era, Polari was a suit of rhetorical armour. It was also an act of defiance in a time when a man could be convicted for ‘gross indecency’ for ‘arva’ with another man. He would then be sentenced to either prison or hormone treatment, which is exactly what happened to Alan Turing.
The roots of Polari date back to Thieves Cant in the seventeenth century, and more recently to a nineteenth century slang called Parlyaree used by circus folk, prostitutes and buskers. Thieves Cant, Parlyaree and Polari all served as a way for marginalised groups to communicate openly. As a form of slang, it developed as the times required. It made its way into the music halls, where it was picked up by actors, and found its way across the English Channel to the London gay scene.
In the 1960s BBC radio series Round the Horne, two camp out-of-work actors, Julian and Sandy, used Polari to push the most outrageous one-liners past the censors. ‘Isn’t he bold!’ Sandy would cry, where ‘bold’ meant ‘homosexual’. If they talked about seeing someone’s ‘Mons star’, or complained about the ‘dirty dishes’, only the initiated saw the secondary meaning.
Polari is bound up with the social mores and attitudes of the time. The fusion of man-woman, ‘omee-palone’, to mean a gay man is a fair indication of that. It is also camp and overtly sexual. It fell out of favour in the 1970s in an attempt to consign all things camp to a pre-liberation past. What is interesting about Polari now is its historical significance, and the insight it provides into a time when homosexuality was not only illegal but treated as a mental illness.
I first had the idea for the website that would become Polari Magazine back in 2007. I didn’t know what to call it. It was Bryon, the magazine’s co-founder and designer, who suggested the name Polari. It was perfect. And at the time no-one was using it as name for anything. The experience of homosexuality is multi-faceted, and complex. It is about navigating a culture from the margins; it is about what is revealed to others, and what is, at the same time, hidden; it has always had its own language in order to navigate both the mainstream and an alternative to that mainstream. What better name for the magazine than Polari, and to forge a link between the present and a common gay heritage, thereby looking back whilst looking forward.