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Ain’t No Thang But Some Gay Slang

The gays, like any sub-sect of society, have long had their own slang that varies from region to region, class to class, and race to race within that particular sub-sect.

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.”

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  • t money

    Off the rails I was and
    off the rails
    I was happy to stay
    on the rack I was
    “easy Meat
    but a reasonably good buy
    a reasonably good buy
    the Piccadilly palare
    was just a silly slang
    between me and the boys in my gang
    “so bona to vada, OH YOU
    your lovely eek and
    your lovely riah
    We plied an ancient trade
    where we threw all life’s
    instructions away
    exchanging lies and digs (my way)
    well, in a belted coat
    oh I secretly knew
    that I hadn’t a clue
    the Piccadilly palare
    was just a silly slang
    between me and the boys in my gang
    exchanging palare
    you wouldn’t understand
    good sons like you

  • jj

    RIP venus extravaganza :( i remember watching that documentary when it first came out and ive never forgotten it. Its part of the reason i moved to nyc for school.

  • ginasf

    Venus, Octavia and Pepper in Paris Is Burning are not gay, they’re trans women. Nor are they drag performers… they lived 24/7 as women and didn’t dress in any kind of cartoony version of womanhood. I love it how they’re claimed as part of your community when you feel like blood sucking off their gorgeousness, vocabulary and style.

  • cam

    So basically Lester wanted to put up a post from a sophomore history paper he turned in and used a “Paris is Burning” intro to excuse the fact that this post had nothing really to do with the LGBT community.

    Then again, at least it doesn’t seem to have as it’s goal, making the LGBT community look bad like his previous posts have.

  • What the f**k

    The 60’s show was Round the Horne and the Kiki-ing queens were Julian and Sandy(Julian played by Kenneth Williams).

  • Jonathonz

    I would love to see a documentary on Polari! Fascinating stuff!

  • Brent W.

    Actually the woman in the photo is not gay but she is Trans. Thanks for the Trans erasure and transphobia queerty! Rest in peace Venus Xtravaganza. I agree with GinaSF.

  • Brandon

    @ ginasf. You obviously never watched the documentary b/c Pepper LaBeija says IN THE FILM that he’s a man who emulates a woman and has never been a woman and only knows what’s it like to be a man who’s been a woman. The majority of the people in the Ball scene have been GAY MEN.

  • Matt

    LOL Brandon I remember the one guy in PIB who said how he’d been a man that imitates a woman but how he never got a full sex change since he’s not Trans at all and that “Once it’s gone, it’s GONE!”

  • Paul

    Funny that you didn’t mention the editor of http://www.polarimagazine.com, who did a lot of the talking and has written quite a few articles on what Polari was all about …

  • Anthony

    I’m quite amused how misinformation turns into “Transphobia” … this has been the case in a couple articles I’ve read. Grow up… not every error in gender identification is a case of transphobia.

    As far as the post not being gay oriented enough, not every post has to be about dicks up the ass. For some of us, it’s interesting to hear where people think some of our behavior and use of language came/comes from.

  • fagburn

    Erm, re the 1960s BBC Radio Show, it’s just daft to claim listeners wouldn’t have known known Julian and Sandy were two queens.

  • ScaryRussianHeather

    ##3 ginasf and #8 Brent W.

    Sorry to remind you but trans people WERE part of the “sub-sect” of “the gays” in the time the author is writing about. And yes it was kinda stupid to use Venus’s photo without saluting trans women even IF it was being used to illustrate the most famous scene about reading.

    Back in the day when everyone used the term gay as an umbrella and there wasn’t such division within the community for not being so insistent to tattoo people with their specific trans versus gay orientations.

    A lesson can be learned from Paris Is Burning during a time when everyone was supportive and pretty much got along with each other regardless of their trans versus gay identification.

    And @Cam you must have posted to the wrong thread since this entire post has EVERYTHING to do with the LGBT community.

    All that being said, I do agree this time that the author definitely showed trans erasure here. EVERYBODY now knows that trans women were just as prominent and in fact in my opinion more SERIOUS FACTORS (for lack of a better term) in the “gay world” back then even if they didn’t own a political label, and it doesn’t help anyone to ignore that orientation. Even trans people THEMSELVES back then were unable to articulate and explain their differences other than “I don’t feel anything like a man” (paraphrasing Venus).

    By the same token, today’s trans activists need to admit that gay men, transvestites and drag queens were NEVER their enemies even if they were not able to fully comprehend the meaning of being trans and stop trying to rewrite history, too. NOBODY from that generation thinks that, it’s the CURRENT generation’s mantra and complete B.S.

    And if you actually WATCHED the movie, Dorian explains how the balls changed from showgirl drag type balls to realness. It was an evolution and not everyone is PERFECT at remembering and proclaiming it yet.

  • ScaryRussianHeather

    OH snap. Krave in Las Vegas is moving/expanding and the mayor is shown with a showgirl. A trans showgirl. Problem is the club is promoted as the world’s largest “gay nightclub” and so is the headline. I guess the showgirl should quit, right? I mean, after all, she wouldn’t want to be affiliated with those icky gay men and certainly wouldn’t want to be accused of exploiting their dirty money, right?



  • Marie

    Scary Russian Heather that’s bullshit back in the 80s and even 70s trans people were NOT a subset of “the gays”.

  • Marie

    Also as a transwoman who is bisexual a lot of gay men treated me like shit back then. I also remember when bi Transwoman Sylvia Rivera was kicked out of an LGBT org that she helped start and told how “Sorry you don’t belong here!”.

  • Cam


    Gee, and funny how Trans persons also use any excuse to attack the gays and lesbians. The day marriage became legal in NY state, one of the leaders of the state transgendered groups used it as an excuse to do nothing but attack gays. Couldn’t even let that one day go.

    So ease off on the sanctimoniousness.

  • Marie

    The way most gays and lesbians are highly transphobic and not to mention biphobic and rac_ist shows how gsys and lesbians who are hypocritical bigots deserve to be called out for their hate speech.

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