word police

This Is The Secret Language Gay Men Used When Homosexuality Was A Crime

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 2.32.28 PMThere are hundreds of slang words in gay men’s vernacular. Expressions such as bear, chicken hawk, pitcher, catcher and spank bank have become commonplace over the years. During the years that homosexuality was still a criminal offense in Great Britain gay men sometimes communicated with Polari, a largely forgotten form of speech believed to have originated during the 16th century and was commonly used by circus and fairground showmen, merchant navy sailors, criminals and prostitutes.

Most of the words and phrases (“omi-palone” referred to an effeminate man or homosexual) have drifted into obscurity, but a few are still with us. If you appreciate a bit of “rough trade” (and who doesn’t?), Polari is responsible for giving a name to your desire for a thuggish sex partner. Hooray for language!

Brian Fairbairn and Karl Eccleston have made a short film to demonstrate how two strangers in England in the early 1960s might have met on a park bench and strike up a conversation on a park bench using the forgotten form of speech. It’s an interesting reminder that gay men once needed more than an iPhone to arrange a hookup.

Watch Putting on the Dish below.