The 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning is a veritable Webster’s Dictionary for slang used in the primarily black and Latino drag community, such as reading, shade, voguing and realness – terms that have shauntayed their way into the mainstream lexicon.
An interesting article in PRI’s The World gives a brief history of a lesser known and largely forgotten slang called Polari, that has its roots in mid-century British theater.
Polari apparently started off as a secret code among thieves, based on slang used by Italian circus folk, that eventually made its way to the British theater where it was used by gays and straights in the 19th and 20th century.
In post-World War II England, Polari took on a new significance as homosexual acts were illegal until 1967, making it necessary for the gay community to act in secret —and Polari became a private language that could be used safely in public.
Polari recycled words from French, Italian and Yiddish, as well as inverted English words to form new ones, so that hair became riah, face became ecaf, etc, etc. Clayton Littlewood, author of numerous books on London’s Soho neighborhood and its gay community, offers an example:
“And he said ‘vada the eek dear, don’t tell me you haven’t seen her, she’s been trolling round here for years, fiddling with the basket.’” That means, “Look at that face, don’t tell me you haven’t seen him.” (Her means him.) “He’s been walking around here for years.”
And “fiddling the basket”? “I suppose you could describe that as adjusting his lower anatomy while he’s walking down the street,” said Littlewood.
A 1960s BBC radio show even managed to bring Polari to a mainstream audience, though little did Brits know that they were basically listening to some queens kiki-ing over the airwaves. While Polari is largely out of use today, it is considered “a celebration of a lost culture.”