By Paula Lauriano-Stiehm
What is Polari?
Well, that was my second question. My first question was how do you spell the word zhoosh? Or is it zuz? Or jhoosh? I had heard it a million times, and I had done it ten million times; we all have. It means to primp. Whether it’s your ensemble, your hair, make-up, or your gold lamé custom window treatment, to zhoosh it with a toss of your hands makes it better. We’ve heard Carson Kressley and Simon Doonan say it. But where does the word come from? With a few more strokes of the keyboard, I learned that the origin of zhoosh, and a few other curiously familiar words, which we will get to later, were derived from a secret gay language called Polari, and for the record, all of the above spellings are acceptable ones.
Overjoyed by my find, I decided to take a deeper dive, and among several other resources, I came across a book called Fabulosa! The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language by Paul Baker, a scholar on the subject.
This quote is an excerpt from Fabulosa! “ … gay men adopted Polari and ornamented it with words for concepts and various linguistic practices that were more relevant to their situation, but earlier and adjacent versions of Polari were distinctly less gay in nature, being more associated with the theatre or entertainment.”
This single excerpt from the 224 fabulosa pages of Fabulosa! out of the context of time and place, bears evidence of the historic connectivity between the LGBTQ+ community and the worlds of theatre and entertainment, which is where Polari began. The narrative is unequivocal LGBTQ+ history, though the scope of this story is about Polari and the people who spoke it, who were mostly camp gay men in a time when homosexuality was illegal. Throughout my research, I kept in mind questions about women speaking Polari, and whether bisexual and transgender individuals were acknowledged, to which the answers are yes. I will go into further detail about that later. The excerpt also notes that gay men ornamented Polari with words relevant to their situation, which was that they were woefully forced to live on the margins of society at the time, so they were at risk of persecution and arrest. Because of this, they learned to speak Polari so that others could not understand their conversations. The context of time and place is the turn of the century through 1960s England. In the United Kingdom, homosexuality was decriminalized in 1967. We will return to the swinging sixties in just a moment after finally answering the question; what is Polari?
Picture it. Italy. 16th Century.
The origin of Polari can be traced back to Italy, around the 16th century to the traveling entertainment troupes of commedia dell’arte, where entertainers and stagehands developed lingo they called Parlyaree which was derived from the Italian word “Parlare,” meaning to speak. Over time, Parlyaree grew as words and expressions derived from French, Yiddish, Thieve’s cant, and backslang were integrated. Traveling theatre workers brought Parlyaree to England, and with that, Parlyaree became Polari. Polari can be compartmentalized into glossaries of words and expressions, but it falls short of being classified as a bona fide language because, in most situations, its speakers would have had to rely on English to fill in the blanks. Speaking of bona, which means good in Polari, let’s return to the swinging sixties and the Bona World of Julian & Sandy.
The Bona World of Julian & Sandy
Julian and Sandy were characters on the BBC Radio comedy show Round the Horne from 1965 to 1968. The two were played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams respectively, with Kenneth Horne as himself. Julian and Sandy’s use of Polari introduced it to a mass audience while identifying them as gay to those in the know. Julian and Sandy were depicted as stereotypical gay characters in popular entertainment, but they weren’t the objects of ridicule. It was Mr. Horne and his apparent naiveté who bore the brunt of the ongoing gag that was embellished with hilarious double entendres, comedic misinterpretation, and brilliant ad-lib. Paddick and Williams were accomplished actors and well acquainted with Polari in real life.
Each episode would begin with Mr. Horne saying that he found these two characters in a risqué glossy, which he purchased for innocent reasons. This would often lead him to a business with the word bona in its name, such as the Bona School of Languages, Bona Law, Bona Gift Boutique, Bona Bouffant, and Bona Drag.
After listening to nearly every episode of Julian & Sandy via YouTube, I couldn’t help but think of Bona Italian Restaurant in Wilton Manors. It seemed too much of a coincidence that a business with a name that may have been derived from Polari is located in the second gayest city in the United States. wiltonmanors.com
Could this be evidence that Bona’s original owners were nodding to Polari when they christened their business?
Bona Italian Restaurant
I visited with the current owners of Bona Italian Restaurant, Glen Weinzimer and Mark Byrd, and had a dally cackle with the sisters about the history of the restaurant and beyond. Fantabulosa hosts that they are, the proverbial ice was broken the moment Mark offered me an ecofriendly bucatini pasta straw for my cold beverada. Then Glen chimed, pointing to my straw, “You offer any man in this town ten inches of long hard anything, and It’s a winner!” Instantly enchanted, we began to dish the dirt like we had known each other for years.
This is the recap: Bona Italian Restaurant has had several owners since it opened on Wilton Drive in 1979. What began as a small pizzeria grew into a full-scale Italian restaurant over the years, always under the name Bona except for a brief interval when its name was changed to Buona. The temporary change was made by its then-owner for business purposes. Glen and Mark purchased Bona Italian Restaurant in 2016 from a woman named Valerie, a reluctant restaurateur whose husband won the restaurant in a card game from its previous owner, a gentleman named Sal. The card game was played in what is now the Apertivo Lounge at Bona.
In the end, we couldn’t confirm or deny whether the name Bona was a nod to Polari but agreed on the relevance of the correlation and the importance of reflecting on LGBTQ+ history. Both Glen and Mark are active in the community and show their appreciation through Give Back Mondays at Bona where the two have donated more than $40k over the past five years to local non-profit organizations. Glen is also the founder of The SMART Ride, and Mark serves as secretary for the non-profit that gives back 100% of every dollar its participants raise to AIDS Service Organizations throughout Florida. thesmartride.org
After a fortuni visit with Glen and Mark, I wished them a bona nochy and promptly returned to the drawing board. (http://bonaitalian.com/
Thank you for joining me on this journey through time as I scratch the surface of this fantabulousa bit of LGBTQ+ history. I realize that by today’s standards, the words and expressions associated with Polari may not appear to be particularly sensitive, they are instead fairly satirical, which I believe comes from a place of great resolve and creativity, both of which are indicative of the LGBTQ+ community. Looking through today’s lens, most Polari speakers would have likely identified as bisexual. At the time, to be gay was to be bisexual since most lived double lives. Polari words for bisexual are acdc, bibi, and versatile. Polari speakers would not have been likely to identify as trans as they weren’t inclined to enlist for gender confirmation surgery, which has been available since the 1930s. The Polari word for the surgery is remould. There isn’t enough evidence to validate the extent to which women spoke Polari. However, the legendary female DJ Jo Purvis recalls having used Polari with her friends, in particular terms like femme and butch, and engaged in gender-switching language, which is, for example, referring to a woman using the pronoun he.
Polari has a vocabulary of roughly 500 words and expressions, some of which I have classified as “Polari After Dark,” which we will save for another time. This glossary includes words and expressions that are still used today and others that are simply relevant to this story, organized in order of appearance and bundled together with those that hold a similar meaning or relation.
Polari, Polare, Parlare, Parlyaree, Parlaree – To speak, or a Secret Gay Language
Zhoosh, Zuz, Jhoosh – To primp
Zhooshy – Showy
Bona – Good
Fabulosa – Fabulous, wonderful
Fantabulosa – Fabulous, wonderful
Fab, Fabe, Fabel – Fabulous, good, great
Fabularity – Wonderfully funny, majestic
Camp – Funny, exaggerated, flamboyant, and heavily stylized. The word itself is derived from a combination of the Italian word “Campare” which means to make something stand-out, and the French word “Camper” which means to portray or pose. For more on camp, you must read Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, Notes on Camp.
Gay – Homosexual
Outrageous – Extrovert, loud, camp
Drag – Clothing typical of one gender worn by someone who identifies as a different gender or any clothing that is not usually worn by the speaker in their everyday life
Camp Name, Drag Queen Name, Christening – A name that is given to a Polari speaker or drag queen, usually to reflect a key aspect of their identity, appearance, or personality, think RuPaul’s Drag Race
Frock – Female attire
Sling-backs – High-heeled shoes
Swishing – Flamboyantly grand, camp
Screaming – Loud, camp
Sheesh – Showy, fussy, chichi
Sparkle – Light
Queen – Gay man
Queeny – Majestically feminine
Glossy – Magazine
Dally – Sweet, kind
Cackle – Talk
Sister – A friend who may have been a lover at one point
Beverada, bevvy, bevie, bevois – A drink or beverage
Dish the Dirt – Gossip, talk things over
Fortuni – Gorgeous
Bona Nochy – Good night, derived from the Italian “Buona Notte”
On the team – Gay
Got your number – To know what someone is up to, to identify someone as gay
Savvy – To know or to understand
Bold – Audaciously gay
Fag Hag – Female friend of a gay man
Pouff – Gay man
Fruit – Gay man
Omee, Homee, Homey, Omi, Omme – Generic term for man, usually a heterosexual man, derived from the Italian word “uomo” which means man, and the French word “homme” which also means man
Palone – Generic term for woman, usually a heterosexual woman
Omee Palone – Gay man, literally man woman
Palone Omee, Paloney Omee – Lesbian, literally woman man
Butch – Masculine, man or woman
Bull – Masculine woman
Dyke, Dike – Lesbian
Femme – Female, feminine lesbian
So – Gay
ACDC – Bisexual
Bibi – Bisexual
Versatile – Bisexual
Remould – Gender Confirmation Surgery, Sex Reassignment Surgery
Chicken, Chick – An attractive young man, or woman
Naff – Heterosexual, or tasteless, bad
Girl! – General term of address
She – Third person pronoun applicable to a man, an example of gender switching language
He – Third person pronoun applicable to a woman, an example of gender switching language
Dolly – Intelligent, attractive, can also be used as a term of address
Dear, Dearie – Friendly or patronizing term of address
Ducky, Duckie – Term of address, used similarly to dear
Too Much – Excessive, over the top, can be either good or bad, depending on the context
Troll – To walk around, perhaps with sexual intent
Cold Calling – To walk into a bar in search of good company
Cruise – To look for sex
Vodkatini – Vodka Martini, a portmanteau
Mais Oui – Of course
That’s your Actual French – A snarky phrase used to draw attention to the fact that the speaker has used a word or two of French, as a way of appearing sophisticated
Ecaf, eek, eke – Face, this is an example of backslang
Riah – Hair, this is an example of backslang
Riah Zhoosher – Hairdresser
Vada, Varda, Vardo, Vardy, Varder – To look, to so see
Bona Vardering – Attractive, literally good looking
VAF – Look at that absolutely fabulous thing, literally Vada Absolutely Fabulous
Affair or Affaire – Someone with whom you have a relationship
Dizzy – Scatterbrained
Doobies, Doobs, Dubes – Marijuana Cigarette
Pearls – Teeth, Pearly Whites