Queen, Know Your History: Gay Slang in 19th Century England

The Boys in the Band, article on Polari gay slangEverett Collection

Marginalized communities throughout history have had ways of communicating that are proof of clanship. But did you know the street slang used by queens the world over is at least two centuries old, and that you already know a few words of it?

There is disagreement about the exact origins of the gay ghetto slang known as Polari, but it rose in popularity during the 19th century in London’s East End, and shares words with other street vernaculars like Cockney rhyming slang and Yiddsh. The language was common in professions that employed traveling male tradesmen, like the merchant marines and the theater. Gay men adopted it as a way to have sexual conversations safely and in secret.

If you feel ignorant, don’t. You’re already speaking Polari when you use words like butch, camp, and drag — and if you’re paying attention, chicken, cottaging and zhoosh. Theater slang that is part of the lexicon, such as referring to dancers as “hoofers,” also comes from Polari.

But if you hear someone say, “Vada the eek on that naff omi-palone,” ask your local queen for a translation. And pray they aren’t talking about you.