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Mind your language

Polari a ‘secret language’? Nonsense

If used in a pub, the police were among the most likely to understand it

15 October 2016

9:00 AM

15 October 2016

9:00 AM

Of the contribution to English that Polari is claimed to have brought, perhaps naff is the most current-sounding. An older suggestion for its origin, recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, is from northern English naffu, ‘simpleton’. But, in a refreshing wander through the forest of Jonathon Green’s Dictionary of Slang, which this week went online, I ran into other possibilities. Not only does he record the suggestion that it came into Polari from 16th-century Italian, gnaffa, ‘a despicable person’, he also considers a Romany origin, from naflo or nasvalo, ‘no good’.

My shelves had already shrugged beneath the three fat printed volumes of the dictionary Mr Green published in 2010, after 17 years’ work, with 100,000 entries illustrated by more than 400,000 quotations. Now another 2,500 entries are added, and 60,000 more quotations. But the great thing about being online is the ability to search for words, derivations or meanings.


So I tried it out on Polari, which the OED calls ‘a kind of secret language’, in the theatre and circus, at sea and among homosexuals. The search facility came up with 25 words — not a disappointing haul, for many popular Polari words properly belong under European Lingua Franca, Yiddish and Romany.

One surprise was butcher’s (not ‘look’ as in rhyming slang, but ‘noon’). Another was that dolly-bird may not be from English dolly but from Italian dolce. Mr Green also records a suggestion that polone, ‘woman’, may come not from pollone, ‘chick’, but from paglione, ‘hay-bag’.

Anyway, it’s all nonsense that Polari was a secret language. If used in a pub, the police were among the most likely to understand it. Its few dozen words didn’t even begin to be a language. The most glorious blossoming of Polari was in the mid-1960s, in Round the Horne (scripts by Barry Took and Marty Feldman), on the lips of Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick as Julian and Sandy, looking forward to ‘sitting, sipping a tiny drinkette, vada-ing the great butch omis and dolly little palones trolling by’. And I’m looking forward to trolling again through Mr Green’s forest of slang — a ferricadouzer of scholarship if ever there was one.


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