You may think you know everything there is to know about gay slang, but there’s a secret language from the past that’s a mystery to many. Daz Skubich reads ‘Fabulosa!’ to learn more about Polari.
As a newly qualified linguist and long-time gay fact nerd, I knew that I needed to read Paul Baker’s Fabulosa! The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language as soon as I could get my hands on it. The lovely people from Reaktion Books were kind enough to send me a copy to review especially for The Queerness.
For the uninitiated, Polari is the language that was used by the LGBTQ+ community, mostly gay men, in England prior to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. It acted as a form of code that allowed people to talk about their sexuality and love life without being found out by “naffs” (that’s Polari for straight people).
Fabulosa! Is a witty, charming and informative insight into Polari’s linguistic origins, where and by whom it was used, and how it fell out of fashion post-1967. Each chapter also begins with an insight into Baker’s life as a linguist and a gay man, adding a more personal element to the experience than if you were reading his PhD paper, which acts as the book’s main source material.
The early chapters on the origin of Polari from other languages and varieties such as Thieves’ Cant, Yiddish and backslang were fascinating, despite being mostly based on educated guesses and historical context. The level of analysis provided by Baker is incredible given just how little recorded queer history exists in the world. Books like this and other forms of queer history always remind me of the importance of keeping records of your life as a queer individual. Even if you’re ‘just an ordinary person’, our history needs to be recorded and saved so that we don’t get erased for future generations.
Fabulosa! Later goes on to explore the linguistic usage of Polari as a sort of add-on to English. The distinction between language, dialect and variety is a huge debate in the linguistics community so Baker steers quite clear of defining Polari as anything concrete, but he does provide an in-depth guide on how to use nouns, verbs and adjectives that he recorded. There’s even a helpful dictionary in the back if you want to teach yourself!
The later chapters discuss the use of Polari in the media and how this, as well as improving social conditions for LGBTQ+ people, resulted in the gradual decline of Polari. Many gays began to see the camp and effeminate nature of Polari as something to be ashamed of, and that gay men should instead ‘act like men’. I personally see this as a form of internalised homophobia mixed in with a bit of Good Ol’ Misogyny, but this was the political climate of the 70s and 80s.
The topics of racism, sexism and classism are touched on by Baker, but only briefly. I was disappointed to see that he did not feel able to call out his interview participants on their racism as they were “doing [him] a favour”, especially as Baker acknowledges the racism that still rules sites like Grindr. As well as this, it seemed more than a little inappropriate to include a quote comparing camp to “minstrelization”, when these issues were completely unrelated and QTIPOC (queer, trans and intersex people of colour) already face enough issues within the queer community.
Baker discusses how camp culture is often ignored by modern queer activists and seen as nothing more than a joke. He mentions in particular the act of “She-ing”, when a gay man refers to another man using ‘she’ instead of ‘he’. “She-ing” ties into a larger issue with Polari’s conflation of sexuality and gender. Baker says,“A gay man was named by combining the Polari words for man and woman together into omee-palone” and vice versa. As a product of their time, older Polari speakers may have identified their sexuality as akin to being a woman in a man’s body, but nowadays this won’t fly. Gay men using ‘she’ can cause many issues including perpetuating misogyny, creating internalised homophobia and most dangerously, it can seriously harm trans women who come out through the camp gay scene by attempting to invalidate their identities.
Overall this book is a great introduction to Polari and the history of the gay male community in Britain, but as Baker acknowledges at the very beginning, “It’s disingenuous to think that you can give a voice to someone without acknowledging how it is filtered through your own.” There is still more to be researched and discovered about the lives of lesbians, trans people and QTIPOC in Britain that would add a whole new level to the discussion around Polari and other potential secret queer languages. We can’t recognise the importance of camp white queens in aiding the movement towards equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community without also heralding the work put in by trans women of colour in the US during the Stonewall era and to this day, all around the world. The fight is far from over and given the current political climate, who knows! We may well have to revive Polari again.
Click here for more information on how to buy Fabulosa!
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