Palare: London's Camp Street Slang
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Palare: London's Camp Street Slang

Palare or Polari is a form of cant slang used in London by actors, circus performers and criminals. It has also been adopted by gay culture, where it forms a secret language allowing users to discuss their sexual identity. The term is derived from the Italian parlare, ‘to talk’.

So bona to vada . . . oh you! Your lovely eek and your lovely riah.

Palare or Polari is a form of cant slang used in London by actors, circus performers and criminals. It has also been adopted by gay culture, where it forms a secret language allowing users to discuss their sexual identity. The term is derived from the Italian parlare, ‘to talk’. The origins of Palare are obscure, but it can be traced back to the 19th century. Palare is a mixture of Mediterranean Lingua Franca, London slang, sailors’ slang, and thieves' cant. Words from the Yiddish language filtered into the vocabulary during World War II when American Jewish soldiers arrived in London. It was a constantly developing form of language, with a lexicon of about 500 words.

There is a longstanding connection with Punch and Judy performers who traditionally used Palare to converse. Palare was also used in the theatre and in circuses. Accordingly, many of its words were derived from Romany. As many gay men worked in the theatre, Palare was used amongst the gay community to disguise homosexual activity from hostile outsiders and undercover policemen. Palare was used as a means of cover, to allow gay subjects to be discussed surreptitiously. Alternatively, it was used by the most visibly camp and effeminate as a way of asserting their identity

Palare was popularised by the BBC radio shows Beyond our Ken and Round the Horne, where it was used by the camp characters Julian and Sandy. Here is a typical extract:

Omies and palones of the jury, vada well at the eek of the poor ome who stands before you, his lallies trembling. (From ‘Bona Law’, a sketch from Round The Horne)

(Men and women of the jury, look well at the face of the poor man who stands before you, his legs trembling.)

Usage of Palare began to decline in the late 1960s. The need for a secret language declined when adult homosexual relationships were legalized in 1967. By the 1970s, gay rights campaigners viewed it as divisive and degrading, as it was principally used to gossip about others and to discuss sexual exploits.

However, Palare has never died out entirely. In 1990, Morrissey, the former lead-singer of the Smiths, released a solo album entitled Bona Drag . The title is Palare for ‘nice outfit.’ The first track on the album is ‘Piccadilly Palare’, which includes the line:

So bona to vada . . . oh you! Your lovely eek and your lovely riah.

(So good to see . . . oh you! Your lovely face and your lovely hair.)

 

Here is an assortment of Palare words:

ajax - nearby (from adjacent)

alamo - hot for him

aunt nell - listen, hear

aunt nells - ears

barney - a fight

basket - the bulge of male genitals through clothes

batts - shoes

bibi - bisexual

bitch - effeminate or passive gay man

bijou - small

blag - pick up

blue - code word for ‘homosexual’

bona - good

bonaroo - wonderful

bungery - pub

butch - masculine; masculine lesbian

buvare - a drink (from Italian - bevere )

cackle - gossip

camp - effeminate (from Italian campare ‘exaggerate’)

carsey - toilet, also spelt khazi

cartso - penis (from Italian - cazzo)

cats - trousers

charper - to search (from Italian - chiappare - to catch)

charpering omi - policeman

charver - sexual intercourse (from Italian - chiavare)

chicken - young man

clobber - clothes

cottage - a public lavatory used for sexual encounters

cove - friend

crimper - hairdresser

dilly boy - a male prostitute

dinari - money

dolly - pretty

dona - woman (from Italian donna)

drag - clothes (from Romani — indraka — skirt)

doss - bed

eek - face

fantabulosa - fabulous

fruit - queen

funt - pound

gelt - money (Yiddish)

handbag - money

hoofer - dancer

homy polone - effeminate gay man

jarry - food (from Italian mangiare)

jubes - breasts

kaffies - trousers

lacoddy - body

lallies - legs

lallie tappers - feet

lilly - police (Lilly Law)

lyles - legs (from ‘Lisle stockings’)

luppers - fingers (Yiddish — lapa — paw)

martinis - hands

measures - money

meese - plain, ugly (from Yiddish ‘meeiskeit’)

meshigener - crazy (Yiddish)

mince - walk (affectedly)

naff - awful, dull

nanti - not, no, none (Italian — niente)

national handbag - dole, welfare, government financial assistance

ogle - look, admire

ogles - eyes

omi - man

orbs - eyes

palare pipe - telephone

palliass - back

park, parker - give

plate - feet; to fellate

palone - woman

palone-omi - lesbian

pots - teeth

remould - sex change

riah - hair

riah zhoosher - hairdresser

rough trade - a thuggish or potentially violent sexual partner

scarper - to run off (from Italian scappare, to escape)

schlumph - drink

screech - mouth, speak

sharpy - policeman

sharpy polone - policewoman

shyker - wig (mutation of the Yiddish sheitel)

slap - makeup

so - homosexual (i.e. ‘Is he 'so'?)

stimps - legs

stimpcovers - stockings, hosiery

strides - trousers

strillers - piano

tober - road

todd - alone

tootsie trade - sex between two passive homosexuals

trade - sex-partner

troll - to walk about (esp. looking for trade)

vada - to see (from Italian vardare - look at)

vera (lynn) - gin

vogue - cigarette (from Lingua Franca — fogus, ‘fire, smoke’)

vogueress - female smoker

willets - breasts

yews - eyes (from French ‘yeux’)

zhoosh - to style hair (from Romani ‘zhouzho’ - clean, neat)

Several Palare words have entered mainstream slang, including:

Naff - tacky or inferior. This term may be derived from the 16th-century Italian word gnaffa, meaning ‘a despicable person’. This gave rise to the phrase ‘naff off’, which was used euphemistically in place of ‘fuck off’ in Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse (1959). The 1970s sitcom Porridge used ‘naff’ as an alternative to expletives which were not considered broadcastable.

Zhoosh - has entered English only recently, particularly through the TV series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The word begins and ends with the voiced postalveolar fricative, which can be heard as the "s" sound in the words "television" and "pleasure".

Reading:

Baker, Paul (2002) Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang. London: Continuum.

Baker, Paul (2002) Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men. London: Routledge.

For a discussion of another local dialect, see:

https://knoji.com/pitmatic-the-language-of-the-northern-coalfields/

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Comments (9)

Very interesting. American slang and "Street Slang" can be hard to translate at times for us oldsters, but this is a totally foreign language. Nice job.

Thanks, Jerry.

Amazing! I have enough trouble in America, and now you've filled my head with even more complicated secret linguistics. There is no topic you're not expert on! Great article.

Very intriguing, Michael. This is a far cry from the "pig Latin" my siblings and I used to use in front of our parents (which only proved to annoy them and conceal nothing!) Great write!

An extremely interesting and so well researched article. I must confess I knew very few of these words (I am not a chicken) and found this very informative. You signed another brilliant work Michael. Thank you so much.

Thanks, everyone. I might zhoosh it up a bit by adding a Youtube clip.

A pleasure to revisit this great piece. Thank you my friend.

Excellent. I was not aware of any of these.

Thoroughly fascinating and enjoyable article! I wasn't aware of this language at all. I have heard "carsey" used on Are You Being Served? though.

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