Bona to vada your dolly old eek

Polari Polari

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    If you're unsure what that sentence means, don't worry, we only said it was good to see your pretty face!

    And if you're struggling to figure out which language this is, again, don't worry. This is Polari, a secret anti-language you're not supposed to know.

    Today, we'll reveal the secrets of the Polari language by learning about its history and some common words, slang, and phrases.

    Polari Language

    Polari (previously known as Palari, Palare, or Parlaree) is an endangered language variety that can be defined as a sociolect and as an anti-language.

    Sociolect - A language dialect spoken by a particular social group.

    Anti-language - A minority language used by a small specific group and actively excludes the wider society. Anti-languages can also be called secret languages or cants.

    So, which social groups spoke Polari, and why was the creation of this anti-language needed?

    Polari is a predominantly lexical language that derived from English out of necessity in the 1930s. Polari is considered a 'secret' language that took vocabulary from multiple different places (e.g., Italian) and strategies (e.g., backslang) so that gay men could talk about their lives without fear of prosecution.

    Homosexuality and the law

    Although it may seem strange or uncomfortable now to think of homosexuality as a crime, this was the norm in the UK (where Polari originated) until 1967, when the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 was introduced. The act stated that any homosexual activity had to be consensual, private, and between two men over the age of 21, meaning a level of secrecy was still required.

    It is worth noting that homosexuality between women was never explicitly banned or legalized.

    Gay men weren't the only ones using Polari, and between the 1930s and the 1970s, the secret language was used in London and throughout the UK by gay women, sex workers, people in the Navy, people who worked in theatre, and more.

    Today, the language has fallen out of use and has been labeled an 'endangered' language by Cambridge University.

    Polari History

    The exact origins of Polari are not 100% clear, but it came into dominance in London in the 1930s. Many believe it evolved from an old slang language named Parlyaree, which was used by travelers, circus members, market stall vendors, beggars, and other relatively 'powerless' members of society. Parlyaree contained vocabulary from a wide variety of sources, such as Italian, Romani, Meditarianian lingua franca, and slang.

    Polari, Image of carnival, StudySmarterFig 1. Parlyaree could often be heard at the carnival

    Parlyaree was then picked up and added to by other members of society and used as a way of excluding those from the main speech community, i.e., the wider society. The language grew in terms of vocabulary and popularity until it became what we now call Polari. The main users of Polari were theatre workers, circus workers, gay men, gay women, and gay men in the Navy.

    The vocabulary of Polari was originally very small (around 20 words); however, over time, it grew to about 500 words. New words arose from various different sources and techniques, such as Cockney rhyming slang, Yiddish, thieves cant (slang used by criminals), drug culture slang, and backslang.

    Cockney rhyming slang - A type of slang that originated in East London in the 19th century. Slang words are created by finding rhyming words to replace the original English word. For example, apples and pairs = stairs, and boat race = face.

    Backslang - A type of slang that involves reversing the spelling or pronunciation of words. For example, old becomes delo.

    Throughout the 1930s-60s, Polari could be heard throughout London in places where gay men, theatre and circus folk, and potential criminals hung out, such as in bars, cafes, and the theatre. Polari wasn't only common in London but could also be found across cities with a sizeable gay community.

    The secretness of Polari allowed people who, at the time, were deemed lawbreakers to talk amongst themselves confidently without fear of being reported or caught by undercover police.

    By the end of the 1960s, Polari started to die out, mainly because the need to 'hide' from the law was no longer as necessary and because the language itself wasn't much of a secret anymore. In the mid-1960s, two famous British comedians began using Polari on a popular radio show, meaning the secrecy of the secret language was lost.

    Today, some Polari words are still in use and have made their way into mainstream slang.

    Polari Words

    Due to the nature of the language, Polari contains a lot of words surrounding sexuality, clothing, appearances, and the gay lifestyle at the time. Polari has a core vocabulary of around 20/25 words, as well as around 450+ words that are known by some but not others.

    Here are some example core words with a brief description of their etymology (linguistic history):

    • Ajax (next to) - Short for "adjacent to"
    • Bagaga (penis) - Taken from the Italian word for baggage "baggagio"
    • Fantabulosa (amazing) - A blended word of "fantastic" and "fabulous" with the suffix "-osa" added
    • Bevvy (drink) - Short for "beverage"
    • Ecaf (face) - Victorian backslang word (ecaf was often shortened to eek)
    • Dhobie (to wash) - From the Hindi word for washerman "dhobi"
    • Lally (leg) - Cockney rhyming slang
    • Dolly (pretty) - British slang
    • Bona (good) - Potentially from the Italian word for good "buona"
    • Naff (tasteless) - Origin unknown
    • Omi (man) - Potentially from the Italian for man "uomo"
    • Palone (woman) - Origin unknown
    • Omi-palone (gay man) - A combination of man + woman
    • Riah (hair) - Backslang
    • Vada/Varda (to look) -Potentially from the Italian word for see "vedere"
    • Vera Lynn (gin) - Cockney Rhyming Slang

    Polari, Image of gin, StudySmarterFig 2. In Polari, a glass of gin could be a "bevvy" or a "Vera Lynn"

    Polari Grammar

    As Polari is predominantly a lexical language variety that derived from English, its grammar remained much the same as that of English. Although most people used Polari by simply exchanging out some English words, a few Polari speakers attempted to standardize and record Polari grammar.

    These rules were similar to English grammar, except slightly more standardized. For example,

    • Add the suffix "-s" to the end of a noun to make a plural

    • Add the suffix "-er" to the end of a verb to create a noun

    • Add the suffix "-ing" to the end of a verb to show a continuous aspect

    • Add the suffix "-ed" to the end of a verb to show a completed aspect

    Vada = to look

    Vadar = a person who looks

    Vadared = saw

    Vadaring = looking

    Omi = man

    Vadaring omi = a looking man

    Polari Numbers

    Polari also had its own number system, suggesting the language was once used on a daily basis for everyday activities.

    The numbers are:

    Polari English
    Say oneySeven
    Say dooeyEight
    Say trayNine

    Polari Slang

    By the end of the 1960s, many polari words had made it into mainstream slang, and some Polari words can still be heard in Britain, and around the world, today.

    The first time Polari really made an impact in the mainstream media was when it appeared on the BBC radio show Round the Horne in the mid-60s. The show began using Polari in some of its sketches and Polari vocabulary began making its way into the mainstream from there. Famous Polari lines that appeared in the show included:

    Bona to vada your dolly old eke

    Translation: Nice to see your pretty old face

    Omies and palones of the jury, vada well at the eek of the poor ome who stands before you, his lallies trembling

    Translation: Men and women of the jury, look well at the face of the poor man who stands before you, his legs trembling.

    Polari has also cropped up in other mainstream media outlets, such as in a song by the British artist Morrisey (So bona to vada...oh you! Your lovely eek and your lovely riah - from 'Piccadilly Palare'), and even in an episode of Ru Paul's Drag Race.

    Some Polari words that exist in slang today include:

    • Naff - tasteless

    • Camp - a feminine man

    • Butch - a masculine woman

    • Slap - makeup

    • Drag - women's clothes

    Polari Dictionary

    There is no official Polari dictionary, and it's unlikely one is going to appear any time soon. However, a handful of Polari words have made their way into the Oxford English Dictionary, including naff and butch.

    Polari - Key takeaways

    • Polari is a predominantly lexical language that derived from English out of necessity in the 1930s.
    • Polari was predominantly used by gay men, gay women, members of the theatre and the circus, market stall vendors, and sailors.
    • Polari was used as a secret language to allow those who were breaking the law at the time to do so without being caught.
    • Polari words originated from several different sources, such as Italian, Romani, Cockney rhyming slang, Yiddish, Thieves Cant, and British drug culture slang.
    • Some examples of Polari words include naff (tasteless), bona (good), riah (hair), vada (to look), and Vera Lynn (gin).
    Frequently Asked Questions about Polari

    Do people still use Polari?

    Polari is no longer commonly used; however, some Polari words are used in slang, especially in the UK, today.

    What kind of language is Polari?

    Polari is a lexical language variety. It can be considered a sociolect and an anti-language.

    Why was Polari created?

    Polari was created out of necessity in the 1930s so that those who were breaking the law at the time could do so in secrecy. Prior to the end of the 1960s, homosexuality was considered a crime in the UK, so Polari was often used by gay men and women.

    When was Polari used?

    Polari was mainly used between the 1930s and the 1970s.

    What does bona to vada mean?

    In Polari, bona to vada means "good to see".

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Choose two categories that Polari falls under

    Choose two influences present in Polari

    What does riah mean? 

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