The Evolution of Polari: A Hidden Language Unveiled

The origins of Polari, a form of cant slang, can be traced back to the 19th century in the United Kingdom. Born out of the interactions between various subcultures and societal groups, including seafarers, traveling entertainers, criminals, and gay men, Polari became an intriguing linguistic tapestry that served a particular purpose - creating a secret language within a wider society that often was not accepting of certain groups or lifestyles.

Polari's Beginnings:

The roots of Polari are believed to date back to a period when circuses and fairgrounds were hubs of entertainment. Performers, known as "showmen," developed a lingo called Parlyaree that helped to differentiate them from the 'rubes' or general public. Similarly, sailors used a version known as Lingua Franca or Mediterranean Lingua Franca, a pidgin language used to facilitate communication in the diverse and multinational environment of the sea.

Polari and the Gay Subculture in the 20th Century:

In the first half of the 20th century, when being openly gay was illegal and heavily stigmatized in the UK, Polari was adopted by gay men as a covert means of communication. It allowed them to identify and connect with each other, and to speak freely without fear of discovery or persecution. This form of coded language served as a lifeline and an assertion of identity in a society that, at that time, did not permit their authentic expressions of self.

The use of Polari in the gay community was a means of defiance and resistance, offering a sense of community and camaraderie in a world that often rejected them. It also served a practical purpose by allowing gay men to discuss their lives, relationships, and sexuality without raising the suspicions of those who might harm them or infringe upon their freedom.

Polari's Influence in Popular Culture and Modern Slang:

Fast forward to the 21st century, the once-secretive language of Polari has found its way into mainstream culture. One of the pivotal moments in this shift was the popular 1960s BBC radio show "Round the Horne," which featured two flamboyantly gay characters, Julian and Sandy (played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams), who spoke Polari, introducing the language to a wider audience.

In the world of music, Morrissey's 1990 song "Piccadilly Palare" was named after a form of Polari and used several Polari terms. The Scissor Sisters' song "Vulture" from 2010 contains the line "Just 'vada' that homie," where 'vada' is Polari for 'look at'.

Examples of Polari in Contemporary Culture:

Some Polari words have managed to permeate mainstream culture, moving from the fringes into everyday vernacular. One such example is the term 'drag,' originally from Polari, used to describe clothes associated with one gender being worn by someone of another gender, particularly in performance contexts. Similarly, 'camp,' used in Polari to denote effeminacy, is now a widely recognized term.

In film and television, instances of Polari usage are increasing. For instance, the British comedy-drama series "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme" used Polari in its dialogue. In the 2014 movie "Pride," one of the characters uses Polari.

In literature, Paul Baker's "Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang" (2002) offers an extensive exploration of Polari, further promoting its historical significance and linguistic intrigue. Neil Bartlett's 1986 novel "Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall" also uses Polari.

Polari has not only survived but thrived, continuously redefining itself while maintaining its roots. Its journey from a secret language to an element of pop culture reflects societal changes in attitudes towards homosexuality. Polari stands today as a testament to resilience, a linguistic symbol of both survival and celebration of gay culture and identity.

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