Forward Thinking

Saving Polari

By Nathan Jeffay

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A push in underway to save a most unusual language.

Polari is a language — or to be exact a lexicon of 500 words approaching a language — used over the years in Britain by sailors, criminals, circus performers, prostitutes, immigrant Jews and Italians, and the gay community. In short, a bunch of people that didn’t have much in common except for being on the fringe of society and wishing to be able to converse on certain topics without being understood by the mainstream.

And given that each group that used it contributed to its vocabulary, it had Jews using criminal slang, Italians using terms contributed by prostitutes and — you guessed it, everyone using words in, or adapted from, our great mamaloshen Yiddish. For example, ugly became meese from the Yiddish meeiskeit, and crazy became meshigener. Yiddish is responsible for 5% to 10% of Polari words.

There are indications that the language has been around for as long as five centuries. But it thrived in the mid 19th to mid 20th centuries, during which time Yiddish had its influence. In the communities that made use of it, including among Jews, it has been forgotten for several decades — yet it lingered for longer in the LGBT community.

This is why gay Manchester artists Jez Dolan and Joseph Richardson are on a “mission” to save it.

They developed an iPhone app that provides English to Polari translation, and have held educational events that have attracted about 500 people. Last year they held a small exhibition at the University of Manchester’s John Ryland’s Library, viewed by 30,000 people and today the open a much larger exhibition which they expect to be seen by 50,000.

Why are they so keen to “save” Polari? It was, in their view, “a bold yet secretive part of gay history,” and they think that in the age of increasing GLBT equality, it’s important for their community to remember the past — and the ad-hoc connections that it made with other marginalized groups, Jews among them. “I don’t think we expect people to start using it massively but we want people to know about it, and know about this heritage shared with others,” said Dolan.


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