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'Bevvies', 'zhooshed' and 'naff'. A few words from Professor Paul Baker on Polari

by Courses on 01 / 07 / 2016

If you have ever said you're popping down the pub for a few "bevvies", "zhooshed" up your bijou flat, or commented "that's a bit naff" then you have already used Polari. But what is Polari? We asked Professor Paul Baker, author and tutor for our upcoming course, Polari: The lost language of gay men, a few questions to help us get a better understanding.
photograph of Paul Baker
Q: Can you explain what Polari is?

A: Polari is a form of language which was used by LGBT people in the 20th century. They used it as a way of identifying each other and to have private conversations while on public transport or in other situations around straight people. It also helped to create a sense of shared identity. But it had pretty much died out by the end of the 1970s.

Q: What will people learn about the culture on your course?

A: They'll learn about a range of different cultures, not just gay culture but all the different sorts of people who interacted with gay people, resulting in a mixture of words and phrases which became Polari. They'll also learn a bit about what it was like to be gay in the 1950s and how gay people were subject to blackmail, violence, police oppression and sickening medical procedures designed to make them straight. 
Q: What will surprise people about Polari?

A: I think people will be surprised to learn what's happened to Polari in the last 20 years, as it has been adopted for new purposes which are often very funny and also thought-provoking. I think people also might be surprised to find out that there is a somewhat darker side to the language, which reflects the casual racism and sexism of the time, and was one of the reasons why it was dropped.
Q: People were aware of Polari  through Julian and Sandy from  Around the Horne. Where else would they have heard it?
A: It cropped up in a 1973 episode of Dr Who (when the Dr was played by Jon Pertwee), where it was weirdly described as Telurian carnival lingo, and also was used briefly in a scene in a Frankie Howerd film called Up the Chastity Belt. Larry Grayson sometimes used the odd word in his Generation Game, while Julian Clary and Paul O'Grady have occasionally used it too. But these were often just brief snatches of Polari and it's really Round the Horne where it was used most extensively, although that was a much simplified and sanitised version!

Q: You have written a comprehensive dictionary of Polari,
Fantabulosa, but are there any words in your dictionary that have made it into the Oxford English Dictionary or are in common use today? 

A: Probably the word "naff" is the one which people may have heard of. There's mixed opinion on where it comes from but there's an interesting story behind it (which I will reveal in my course...)

Q: What light will your course shed on gay/queer culture across the years? 

A: I think what I want the course to convey really is just how much has changed for LGBT people in a very short space of time. Life is so different for us in 2016 than it was in 1956 and it's sometimes easy to forget that many difficult battles were fought for LGBT equality. We owe a debt to the people who came before us. They refused to do what doctors, police, politicians, newspaper editors and ordinary members of the public wanted them to do - which was to sit alone at home and deny who they were.

Q: What do you think people will be taking away from your course?

A: As well as learning about its history and some of the words and phrases, I hope that they will take away understanding and empathy of the people who used Polari. I also hope they'll have fun - learning a language can be a bit arduous so I've injected a bit of camp humour into some of the language exercises we'll be doing.
Our one day course, Polari: The Lost Language of gay men is on Saturday 30 July (2.30 - 4.30pm) as part of our Summer School.

There are a variety of collections relating to LGBT history, politics and culture within Bishopsgate Institute's Special Collections and Archives. These include the archive collections of organisations such as LAGNAStonewall and Outrage, and material relating to the Terrence Higgins TrustAchilles Heel magazine and QX magazine.

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