Polari – The Secret Gay Language

Different Polari Phrases in a Variety of Shapes

Did you know there is a secret gay language?

No I am not talking about ‘Yas gawd, slay mama okurrrrrrrrrrrrr’ I am talking about Polari. Polari emerged in the mid 20th century as a way for gay people to discreetly communicate with each other when it was illegal during those times to be gay.

Comprising a fusion of linguistic elements from English, Italian, Romani, Yiddish, and slang, Polari is characterised by its playful and often humorous nature. Words and phrases are creatively altered or inverted, creating a distinct and exclusive form of communication.Polari also draws inspiration from theatrical and circus slang, contributing to its unique and vibrant character.

The Sense of Belonging

Up until the 1970s, Polari thrived in underground queer spaces, including bars, clubs, and theatres. It fostered a sense of solidarity and shared identity within the LGBTQ+ community. As societal attitudes evolved and LGBTQ+ acceptance grew, Polari gradually receded from mainstream usage. Nevertheless, its enduring impact on LGBTQ+ history remains palpable.

A language, born out of necessity, played a pivotal role in fostering connections, creating a sense of belonging. While Polari may have faded from the forefront of LGBTQ+ communication, its enduring legacy remains a reminder of the power of language to forge bonds and defy societal norms.

Some examples of Polari being playful are “She” almost always meant ‘He“. Male pronouns were usually switched to female pronouns. The same happened for female versions of male names, Paul became Pauline. 

Vada the dolly dish, shame about his bijou lallies

Look at that attractive man, shame about his legs.

Polari Today

Some Polari terms are still used in todays language for example:

  • Trade – casual sexual partner
  • *Butch/Femme – masculine/feminine*
  • Naff – rubbish.
  • Drag – clothing
  • Camp ­– funny, flamboyant
  • Slap – Makeup
  • Drag – Women’s Clothes

Had you heard of Polari before? Although it’s near enough died out, you can still see the language being used in popular culture. A good example is of Kenneth Williams, who introduced the language to a more mainstream audience via TV and radio. 


More recently, although not strictly Polari. Kylie’s comeback banger of summer 2023, ‘Padam Padam’ has been claimed by the LGBTQIA+ community. As for what ‘Padam‘ means, that’s all up for discussion. 

As an employer are you looking to be more inclusive? Perhaps you want to educate your team about banter and what language is not appropriate in the workplace. Get in touch to see how we can help with our workshops. 

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