A conversation about queer cant slang, Polari, with Jess
In my second novel, Conserve and Control, a resistance community use Polari as their communicative language. Parts of my first novel, Margins and Murmurations, were translated into Polari and it was the first language/slang that any of my work was translated into. Those translations and dialogues were written by my fabulous friend, Jess. In this conversation – recorded in 2018 during a book tour – we chat about the origins and future of Polari, the politics of sex work, class and queerness and Jess’s personal journey with this incredibly fabulous queer cant slang.
Jess is a prison abolitionist and ecologist-in-training, who has an interest in languages, mycology, and building for the revolution. In their spare time, they like putting their hands in deep piles of moss, cooking, and collecting piles of books they never read.
Kes Otter Lieffe:
Hi, I’m Kes Otter Lieffe and welcome to Margins and Murmurations, the podcast. If you enjoy this episode, please share it with your friends. As I don’t have social media this is the best way for people to find out about me. If you’d like to know more about my work, you can check out otterlieffe.com. And you can support this podcast at patreon.com/otterlieffe
In my second novel, Conserve and Control, a resistance community use Polari as their communicative language. Parts of my first novel, Margins and Murmurations, were translated into Polari and it was the first language/slang that any of my work was translated into. Those translations and dialogues were written by my fabulous friend, Jess. In this conversation – recorded in 2018 during a book tour – we chat about the origins and future of Polari, the politics of sex work, class and queerness and Jess’s personal journey with this incredibly fabulous queer cant slang. The interview starts with one of Jess’s translations from Margins.
Its lallies were bound. Rope flamed against its martini glasses. I shouldn’t want this, it thought, but I can’t help myself. This is everything I dreamed of. Naked but for a layer of mud on its arse, and the candlewax covering its willets. The omi was completely nadavadaed by the scarf tied around his ogles. Each time the loud snap before the cold and the pain as strips of leather deep cut into its palias. Its skin tore open and una by una, the wilds were released. They wanted to screech out confessional how dowry it had loved her. But only moans escaped its amours. Snap then pain, snap and pain. It’s boundaries broken down. And it was hers. I love you, Mistress. The libbage become empty. The air suddenly nixta. Blood pounding in its lobes the only felt the month tighten in around it as it sensed her nada. This is the gildy moment. This is the moment where I vada the root of loneliness. It vadered with a vada born in the munge, a clarity of endorphins. And for a moment there there was nada in the world except the noisy cheat of its own airs. There she was again, embracing it, scratching it, smothering its skin with hers, absorbing it into herself. And it was ready to share its pain with her once more. Thank you Mistress. That was fantabulosa. I’m always fantabulosa! Mais oui, Mistress.
K: Beautiful! Did you like reading it?
J: I love the way it sounds because it’s so deliciously camp. You know, it just feels really fabulous, just to talk in Polari. You can totally see why people did.
K: Yeah, really. Ferricadooza, fantabulosa. I mean, they’re really big words!
J: Yeah. Yeah.
K: There’s no understatement there.
J: Polarity is never about understatement. It’s so weird that it’s meant to be this secret language. But actually, it’s just so out there. It’s really like not even trying to hide thosse, like very much, I know, you know what I am sweetie we but you don’t know what I’m saying. But I know you know, I’m talking about you. You know, there’s kind of a beautiful bitchiness around Polari. It kind of goes through the whole, like language really, like, if you were to talk in Polari, if you would like to meet somebody, you would never use their name, really, most of the time, unless you had a name for them. But everyone was Ducky, or Dear or Dearie or Heart face. And it was on all of these like really femme terms of endearment, but it was it was kind of like a double edged sword because you are close with this person. Somebody’s calling you Ducky. And it’s really nice. But then it’s also like, I don’t need to know your name. You know? Especially Heart face. That’s the worst you can just be like, if anyone uses Heart face. You’re like, Okay, I’ve been told like.
K: You are nameless. I don’t need to know. So tell us a little bit about Polari as a slang, as a language. Where did it come from? Who used it?
J: So Polari was a cant language. So it kind of replaces some words in the English language. And it grew out of a travelling showmen language called Parlyaree, but it was used by people, artists, gay men, queer people, criminals, sex workers, sailors, all this kind of hidden underbody of people. And this was from the 1900s and it was used to quite heavily until really about the 1970s. And it kind of died out. There was this radio show called Around the Horn. And it really like made Polari famous because the people doing the radio show were obviously queer. And so they use this language, they had this language as just way of doing stuff. But as part of this radio show, they had this sketch called Bona Books. And they would be two highly camp characters who talked exclusively in Polari, and were very bitchy, and all of that kind of stuff. And it really introduced Polari to the straight and cisgender world. And around that time, homosexuality was legalised. And like, gay culture had become really masculine and stuff. And people just stopped talking Polari anymore, but the purpose of Polari was, was kind of to have this secret language which straight people couldn’t hear. So you could talk about your conquest, you could talk about, you know, dressing up we could talk about going out and dancing and makeup and all of this kind of stuff. And straight world, even if they were listening to you talking, they just had no idea what you were saying. But once this radio show had gone out, then the secrecy had gone so they it was kind of destroyed by that. So now not many people speak Polari, but there are some Polari words that have made it into mainstream conversation, stuff like naff, which actually means heterosexual. It stands for Not Available For Fucking so whenever anyone says those curtains are naff, what they’re actually saying is I don’t want to fuck those curtains.
K: They’re too straight!
J: And there’s other phrases and stuff from Polari that has kind of gone into regular language. And some phrases from regular language went into Polari. So there’s a lot of cockney rhyming slang, in clarity. So it’s really like a cornucopia of linguistic delights. A lot of it comes from Italian. A lot of it comes from Cockney, a lot of it comes from Romani languages. It’s really a smorgasbord of influences.
K: What is your favourite word?
J: Hmm, that’s a hard one, actually. Okay, there’s two things I really love about Polari. One is that there’s about fourteen ways of saying no.
J: Which is very, very useful. And only one for yes. And that is mais oui, which is obviously French for of course. I also like the words for the police. They’re so fantastic. We’ve got Jennifer Justice. You’ve got Lily Law, Hilda Handcuffs. Betty Braces, Orderly Daughters – just so funny. And I love the way that this was when homosexuality and being queer was was criminalised. And, you know, the people would like be really living in fear of the police. And that’s why there’s so many words to do with the police. But they like really took the authority of the police and the masculine authority of the police and flipped it on the head and they kind of used it in a way to like, laugh at them. The thing that I really like about it is the whole language is feminised. So as much as the policeman was she, so were you, everyone is she. There’s no like sexist element to it. So it’s kind of like there’s no sense that femininity is being like ridiculed, is just really subversive for the way that they use it for the police, which I really like. So those are my two favourite wordlets from Polari.
K: And I noticed them the text used ‘it’ as a translation as a pronoun for some people – tell us about the pronoun system.
J: Yeah, so in Polari, there is one pronoun, well two pronouns. Everyone is she. There’s actually a rule. You don’t she your father. You don’t she your cock. You don’t she your father’s cock. For everyone, but your father, and your cock and your father’s cock. With the exception of it. So it is a client, a trick, of a sex worker. So it’s the only place in which you have another another pronoun. And a lot of the people speaking Polari would be sex workers. But it’s actually like, I think, quite empowering in a certain way to see it as the client being the object in the sex work relationship, rather than outside of sex worker land, often people see the sex worker as selling their body, as like objectifying themselves. So it’s really interesting that they’ve switched that turned on its head, and objectifying the client, and I really liked that.
K: How was it for you to translate this passage?
J: it was okay, getting used to the language again. I’ve not translated something for a while. I found that the translation for the word client I struggled with, because everything was pointing me towards using the word tenant, because a lot of the words surrounding sex work in Polari is all about renting, rent boys, all of that kind of stuff. So it’s pointing me in the direction of you need to use tenant as a concept. And I was like hmm, like, obviously, I’ve been a sex worker. And I felt just like, slightly uncomfortable with the idea that, that they were like, living in my body or something like that. But I think it’s the best translation. Because they, they don’t own the house. They’re just visiting, you know?
K: And it does kind of break that discourse of selling a body. Because you’re not selling the house, you’re renting it out. There is like, this, like, very silly concept of just like selling your body. And then what you have no body. I mean, how does that work?
J: What have you taken away from me by this interaction. Yeah. The point is, I guess of Polari is that it’s meant to be slightly understandable to people who don’t speak it. And for people to be able to get that kind of context of, I know, something’s being talked about, but I don’t know what.
K: Yeah, and I guess, as a cant slang, as well, it doesn’t have to fulfil all of the purposes of a language. So it’s, as you say, it’s very contextual. It’s very utilitarian. People were using it, to bitch people out, and also to communicate without them understanding but letting them know that they were being talked about. And it also really reflects I imagine in terms of, of the vocabulary, it really reflects what people needed to talk about and what people needed that kind of slang for. So it probably doesn’t have, if people were still speaking Polari, they would have a totally different vocabulary now. There’d be all kinds of other things to talk about.
J: Yeah, for sure. And one of the beautiful things actually about Polari is that you can just create words, like, it didn’t have that many words. But there’s different functions within Polari for making words. So you can add feminising endings to the end of words. And that would make it Polari. You can describe objects, and there’s like two object words, cheat, and fake, or fakement. And a lot of words in Polari, you can describe the thing and then add one of those objects words. So if I was to create a word, for baby, for example, I would say lullaby cheat. So it’s a thing that you sing lullabies to. So it describes the thing. So there’s, there’s a lot of ways of making language and really playing with language, which meant that it was actually really utilitarian, you could use it to talk about anything with very few words, because you can just make things up and so long as it was camp, so long as it was fabulous. And all of that kind of stuff, it was Polari!
K: Those things are important!
K: And how do you feel about the translation of trans?
J: Oh yeah, well, there’s a, you know, Polari definitely wasn’t a perfect language. Let’s just put it that way. And it was spoken up until the 1970s. So it has a lot of ideas that I wouldn’t necessarily think of as reflecting my ideas now. I’ll say it has a fair bit of racist language. I think the the words surrounding trans stuff is quite, well, transphobic. So there’s actually a very limited vocabulary around gender. And the word for trans people is remould. So it’s very much like you are remoulding your body, it’s very transition focused. The other ways of talking about queerness it’s actually very gendered based as well. So the way of saying gay man or lesbian woman would be paloneomi or omipalone. So omi is man. And palone is a woman. So depending on which way you put it down, you actually literally just calling a gay man, a man woman, and a lesbian woman, a woman man. So they understand that queerness in that very gendered term. So now we kind of see sexuality is kind of doesn’t really, it’s not really gender, necessarily, but they had like, a different view is gay people were like, at the souls of the opposite binary gender track inside them. And that’s what made them queer. So they do discuss it in terms of gender, but the, the actual trans specific words are really lacking. And something that’s ripe for playful coming up with new words. So I think it’s time to explore that.
K: Which brings us to the future of Polari.
J: Yeah, so, for me, like Polari was always, it’s kind of on its deathbed, really, like nobody speaks it. It’s just a handful of words, the only people in the UK who are really putting any effort into reviving it, are a handful of artists, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, of which I’m a member who use Polari as a liturgical language. So instead of Latin, which is fabulous, of course. But it doesn’t mean that it’s really a living language. And I have always been of the belief that actually Polari doesn’t, we don’t have to confine it to the past, it doesn’t have to be something that was spoken for the 70s. And now, it’s something else, we can bring it back. We can change it, we can add our own words, we can put in the words that we use for queer slang now, like meaningfully, what, what’s the difference between that and Polari? Like, there isn’t really like, it’s it’s a queer cant slang, why can’t we absorb these new words, too? And I think there’s a queerness about that it’s about we don’t have to, like, say, this is this is a thing that’s done before we can’t change it. We’re queer, we can do anything we want.
K: Yeah we can!
J: So I think we can Polari has a bright future, but we probably need to really expand its vocabulary to talk about things that are relevant now. And a lot of that stuff will be gender will be questions around sexuality, which aren’t necessarily tied so completely into, like, sex work and policing, and all of that kind of stuff, but might be kind of differently political words, like the reality of queers now, like, we’re still marginalised, we still struggle, like, surely there must be some words that we can bring in about. But the the real question, I think, is now that that we don’t have necessarily a need for secrecy. I mean, some some people do, but not everyone. Most people don’t. Like, what’s, what’s the purpose of it? And so far, people have only really come up with like art, which is fine. That’s perfectly good purpose for it. So maybe we’ll see more, more artists using Polari and more Polari translations of books and all that.
K: Ooh that would be great!
J: Watch this space!
K: Watch this space. And tell us a little bit about your personal relationship with Polari? Like, why have you learned it? And what brought you to it? How did you hear about it?
J: I first heard about it as a 19 year old, queer. And I grew up in a very like, homophobic, queerphobic environment. And I was constantly told that queerness was something trashy, and like it hadn’t a culture and all of this kind of stuff. And then I learned about this Polari. And I was like, Oh, how how, how come queers have been told that they don’t have any culture, – we have this entire language? And, of course, it is trashy as fuck, but so are we so that’s fine. So I kind of learned about it. And I was like, Okay, I’m gonna put this on the back burner, and then just kind of got more and more interested in it, and I couldn’t really let it go. And I joined the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. And kind of was like, I’m kind of interested in that. It really, I really kind of felt like it. It spoke to me because I was I think it was searching for like, something intergenerational about queerness. Like, I felt like the only people I knew who were queer were my own age, and there wasn’t a link to anything in the past. So that the ritualism of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and the use of Polari in that, like, felt like it kind of gave structure to some stuff. And yeah, it kind of made me feel like connected to people, like who had gone before I, like queer elders. So that’s why I use it, I want to keep it alive. Because it’s such a rich and beautiful language for so few words to say so much. And with such style and pizazz, like, we need to pass this on because it’s fucking fabulous. And the fact that like, it died out largely because of femmephobia. Like, like, there’s part of me that really says, you know, this is a political project, and we should be reclaiming it because it’s so fun, it’s so fabulous. It’s, it’s what we need, like. So I think that’s why I’m really into it. One of my like, pet theories about Polari is when a lot of people talk about Polari, they say the reason why Polari already died out was because of partly because of femmephobia in the 70s and 80s. The muscle clones, all being like, we don’t want to talk this fabulous camp language because femininity is like not something that will give us any respect.
K: Like masculinity growing out of like the AIDS crisis, and people having to like bulk up to prove that they weren’t. Yeah, positive and dying.
J: Yeah, definitely that so it was it was that kind of context, but partially that partially this, like loss of the need for secrecy, partially the legalisation of, of homosexuality. But the thing that isn’t discussed is actually the class element. So, it was something that was spoken by people of all classes, because it was a shared language between queer people who come from all classes, but like, it was primarily from the working class, like, in terms of it being like, soldiers and sailors, people who’ve travelled around and had like illicit affairs and all this kind of stuff, and working class queer people. And now it was all about their interactions. None of the like conventional accounts of why Polari disappeared, mentions the loss of the shipping industry in Liverpool, in London, like Polari, like, had a real centre in London and a real centre in Liverpool because of the sailors. None of the accounts mention the loss of that working class industry. But my hunch is that was part of the picture of why it disappeared. And if you look at like what the shipping industry in Liverpool got replaced with, it got replaced with people driving HGVs. And if you’ve ever stopped off at a service station, like they’re all still fucking gay as fuck, right? Like that culture is not the same but like, there’s definitely a lineage there. But the language has gone. I think there’s something about class that’s missing from this, from this picture, and I think it’s a lot of middle class academics and middle class artists, claiming Polari is something that was exclusively about middle class queerness and wasn’t about working class issues, working class industry, working class queers. So I think the class element has a huge, huge part of it, but I don’t have the resources to prove it. That’s my hunch!
K: I can imagine it going through like a class colonisation, like most things.
K: Turning it into middle class art or something.
J: Yeah, that’s literally all it is now. That’s what Polari is. It’s middle class art now. It needs to return to its roots, if it’s going to survive as like a working language like a language that is more than just, oh, look what gay people did in the past. Then it needs to be spoken and it needs to be spoken by working class people. The future is working class!