Polari: Origin Of Gay Slang (Read It, Mary!)

When searching the internet for pictures of ourselves travel tips for our upcoming voyage across this great land, we stumbled upon the most interesting bit of information: the Polari, gay slang words and their origins. Did you know where the term “camp” came from? We never did. And we think about these things.

Polari–much like a “gay Ebonics,” if you will–is the underground language created amongst London’s “Confirmed Bachelor” set, circa the late 1800’s, as the boys mixed with the gypsies, tramps and theives in search of a naughty good time. They picked up words here and there from the various languages around them, put a gay spin on it all, and formed their own method of speech; as the Industrial Revolution drove men into crowded all-male boarding houses to search for work in the cities, Polari became a handy method of discussing “sensitive” issues without their heterosexual counterparts ever knowing any better. And it made things so much easier, when discussing which of the straight men in the room had a nice dish.

Polari finally entered mainstream slang by the 1950’s, and so much of what we use today can be traced back–take a gander:

Camp: derived from “kamp,” or “Known As Male Prostitute”; effemenite

Basket: bulge in a man’s pants

Trade: person offering sex, who is not gay-identified

Drag: women’s clothes

Chicken: young boy

Zhoosh:to style (think Carson Kressley’s “zhooshing” on Queer Eye)

We had no idea where the words “camp” and “trade” came from, and we’re thrilled to learn a bit of our own culture. Gay people aren’t connected by bloodlines, and many don’t consider their own history.

You’ll see many of the Polari words popping up around Queerty now and then. If Madonna can become British overnight, then so can we. Read up, learn the words–and the next time someone asks you to “check the color of Colin’s eyes,” you won’t need to ask who Colin is. And you certainly won’t look up at his face.

Polari: A Language of the United Kingdom
A History Of Polari and Glossary [frij]
Lexicon of Polari [Prestel]

For a list of our favorite Polari gay slang, read here:

ajax nearby
alamo! “I’m hot for him!”
arthur to masturbate
bagadga penis
basket the bulge of male genitals through clothes
batts shoes
bijou small
blag pick up a man
bod body
bona good
bonaroo excellent
butch masculine; masculine lesbian
camp effeminate (origin: kamp = Known As Male Prostitute)
carts/cartso penis
carsey toilet, also spelt “khazi”
chicken young boy
charver sexual intercourse
charper search
charpering omi policeman
cornybungus arse
cottage public loo (particularly with reference to cottaging)
cottaging having or looking for sex in a cottage
crimper hairdresser
dish an attractive male; buttocks
dizzy scatterbrained
dolly pretty, nice, pleasant
drag women’s clothes
ecaf face (backwards slang)
eek face (abbreviation of ecaf)
ends hair
esong nose
fantabulosa wonderful
feele child
fruit queeny gay man
hearing cheat ear
jarry to eat; to fellate
kaffies trousers
kamp gay man (see also “camp”)
kerterver cartzo sexually transmitted disease
khazi toilet, also spelt carsey
lallies legs
latty room, house or flat
lills hands
luppers fingers
mangarie food, also jarry
manky bad, tasteless, poor
measures money
meese plain, ugly
meshigener nutty, crazy, mental
mince walk (affectedly)
molly gay man
naff bad, drab (from “Not Available For Fucking”)
nanti not, no
nishta nothing, no
oglefakes glasses
ogles eyes
omi man
omi-polone effeminate man, or homosexual
on your tod by yourself
onk nose
orbs eyes
palare pipe telephone
park give
plate feet; to fellate
polari chat, talk
polone woman
pots teeth
scarper to run off
sharpy policeman
shush steal from a client
shyker/shyckle wig
skreeve write
slap makeup
thews thighs
trade person offering sex, who is not gay-identified
troll to walk about (esp. looking for trade)
vada/varda see
willets breasts

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