Why Polari, Britain’s lost gay language, employs so many food words for subversive concepts
Typically, if I said that I’d recently eaten an especially memorable dish, I’d probably mean I’d tried something new at a restaurant. But in Britain 60 years ago, to the mostly (but not entirely) gay male speakers of a dialect called Polari, this phrase had a different, codified, deliciously lurid meaning: Dishes have rims, if you know what I mean.
Polari has a complex hybrid genealogy, as it developed out of terms used in what was known as “Cant” as far back as the 16th century among thieves, evolving into fairground and theater jargon in the 19th century when it was known by its speakers as Palyaree, which then evolved into what we now call Polari. (As a stealth, informal practice, spellings for both the lexicon itself and its vocabulary somewhat varied; the term “Polari” was only codified with that spelling after 1950, following the lexicographer Eric Partridge.) The thread binding these forms is use by outcast or sidelined groups, and Polari as both a jargon and an ethos draws on the languages of the groups that populated these spaces: Romani, Jews, Italians, and the working class.
Although Polari is often called a secret language, it was never a language in the strictest sense. Rather, it is a set of slang-y vocabulary replacing descriptive words in English. An example often given is some variation on, “How bona to vada your dolly old eke,” which strictly translates to “how good to see your pretty old face” — “nice to see you,” more or less. The banal elements of English, the prepositions and pronouns, are retained, and the sentence structure is the same; an English-speaker with a Polari vocab sheet could understand it. The origin of some of these words is obscure, but explicable: “Eke,” meaning face, comes from “ecaf,” or “face” spelled backward. “Bona” is a declension of “good” in Latin, and thus related to the words for “good” in just about every Romance language. Other Polari terms are derived from languages that proliferated around working-class London as Polari was evolving into its more recent form in the early-to-mid 20th century.
Some words in Polari are even less literal, however. They take on a metaphorical or metonymic cast, a trait that is especially clear in how Polari deals with eating, food, and drink.
There are two kinds of food words in Polari. One group comprises words that pertain to eating and drinking. Some of these are not that complex; a drink is a “bevvy,” for example, a pretty obvious shortening of the word “beverage.” (The term “buvare” was also used; this too derives from Romance languages.) The other group utilizes food terminology euphemistically for words that inherently have nothing to do with food; many of these are concerned with sex (and some of them are so enduring they’ve crossed over into the general lexicon, queer or not). The term “meat curtains,” or “beef curtains,” for one. (It means female genitalia, and is just one of several instances of Polari being, let’s say, somewhat misogynistic.) But also fruit, meaning a gay man; chicken (a young gay man); seafood (a sailor); fish (a woman, not kindly); tart (for a prostitute); and the aforementioned “dish” (for several things, butts chief among them).
Two questions come to the fore about all these Polari food words: Obscuring talk about gay sex in a society that was hostile to it makes a lot of sense, but why was it necessary to have special terms for food and drink, which are universal and mundane? And why did so much of the necessary vocabulary for subversive concepts go back to food?
Understanding the meaning of food to Polari necessitates understanding its history and context. Because it was not formally a language, and because it existed to sidestep social and legal strictures, Polari in its prime — starting in the 1930s but especially the postwar period, up until about the 1970s — survived ephemerally, in the memories of its speakers and in the handful of documents, texts, and recordings where it appeared. That there is a coherent narrative about Polari available for anyone to access and a dictionary that now allows it to be used is largely to the credit of Paul Baker, a professor in the department of linguistics and English language at Lancaster University, whose doctoral thesis on Polari resulted in two academic volumes on it published in 2002, Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men and Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang.
In 2019, Baker returned to the topic of Polari in Fabulosa! The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language. One thing Fabulosa establishes well is that Polari, while needed since “gross indecency” was illegal in Britain, was also very fun. Terms that didn’t necessarily have to be encoded, like those for food and drink, naturally built on how people were already engaging in wordplay in the social environments they inhabited: bars, restaurants, pubs, and cabarets. Around these spaces, people weren’t just talking about food; they were talking about other people, especially in terms of sex, and food words began to stand in for some of the specifics. In Fabulosa, Baker records lyrics from various drag acts, several of which pull in food terms masking sex acts. The drag queen Lee Sutton, for example, performed a parody of “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” included on the 1971 album Drag for Camp Followers:
Five and twenty chickens well and truly done.
On the kitchen table they were most obscene.
Now wasn’t that a bona nosh for some old greedy queen.
The entire joke is the double meaning: Someone who knows Polari will understand this is about gay sex, while theoretically the entire thing will scan as if it’s about food. From 2022, with a broader awareness of drag culture, it may seem unlikely this coding was effective at concealing very much. It’s a recording of a performance, however, and so tailored to an audience opting into the joke already. Also, if somebody really wants to ignore the sexual meaning, there is plausible deniability built in, especially if just hearing the recording without the other elements of the performance.
The entire overlay of eating onto sex is possible because both are forms of consumption, broadly, either of food or bodies — sometimes, in the case of the latter, pretty near literally: The word for eating, jarry, also meant to fellate.
Polari fell out of use around the 1970s, for a few reasons. One was that a popular 1960s BBC Radio show called Round the Horne had included two implied gay characters, Julian and Sandy, whose dialogue regularly incorporated Polari terms, thus mainstreaming it a little, and dulling its utility. Another is that in 1967, homosexuality was partially legalized by Parliament, which at least theoretically permitted gay sex between consenting adults of 21 and up, making it less crucial to talk about it in code. As the 1970s saw the blossoming of the LGBTQ rights movement, the predominant style and affect of gay men began to shift from presumptions of feyness and camp to a grittier, more explicitly masc presentation; Polari, with its roundabout coyness, was an inelegant fit. In a political sense, Polari also didn’t work with the shift from a culture of secrecy to one of visibility. Starting in the 1980s, of course, many of the men who had used Polari succumbed to AIDS; by 2022, many of them would be elderly, or no longer alive, due to the basic passage of time.
But Polari isn’t forgotten, thanks largely to the efforts of Baker — and some of the most notable recent uses of Polari have occurred around food and dining. West London’s Portobello Brewing, for example, makes Polari, a pale ale whose sales partially benefit Stonewall Housing, an organization that assists LGBTQ people with finding homes. More interestingly, the London restaurant Hoi Polloi, now closed, opened in the Ace Hotel (also closed) in gentrified Shoreditch in 2013, along with a cocktail menu where the drinks were named after Polari terms. The Bijou Basket, for example, was a gin-based cocktail with ginger and rhubarb elements; its name was Polari for “small package,” meaning the male genitalia. Others included the Meshigener Palone, Bona Hoofer, and Naff Clobber — “crazy girl,” “good dancer,” and “ugly clothing,” respectively.
David Waddington, half of the duo that owns the East London restaurant Bistrotheque, which developed Hoi Polloi for the Ace, says that Polari is part of a “tradition of camp” in British culture, and that he was first exposed to Polari in widely viewed media like the Carry On comedy film franchise, which between 1958 and 1992 saw 30-plus entries; the sitcom Are You Being Served?, which ran in 10 series from 1972 to 1985 before producing a 1990s spinoff and a 2016 revival episode; and Willo the Wisp, a 1981 cartoon series narrated by Kenneth Williams, who was involved in Carry On. (Williams also provided the voice of Sandy on Round the Horne.) Waddington later encountered Polari in Soho in the early 1990s, where he “met a lot of people that had used it more kind of firsthand, that were a generation or so older than me.”
“Hoi polloi,” although not a Polari term, encapsulates a similar camp wordplay, Waddington says. A Greek word that directly translates to “the many,” it’s often used snarkily to mean something like the rabble, or “the great unwashed,” as Waddington puts it. “The name played on this kind of slightly underground-speak of saying this is for everybody, this is a brasserie for everybody, come in. But coded and slightly a filter. You have to not be offended by it and understand the playfulness of it to get it.”
Giving the drinks at Hoi Polloi Polari names extended this spirit of playful double-meaning. As in Sutton’s lyrics, there was a surface-level inherent meaning and rhythm to the cocktail menu — the alliterative double spondees of “Bijou Basket” — and a secondary meaning for those in the know.
“What was interesting is that some people got it straightaway, like on Twitter and things,” says Waddington, “and they would be laughing along. And other people just thought, ‘Well, that’s a daft name for a cocktail, but it’s fun. Let’s go for it.’ … You didn’t have to know that ‘bona basket’ meant a lovely cock. It was just about a basket. You know, ‘I’ll have three bona baskets, please.’”
Waddington says he and business partner Pablo Flack arrived at using Polari on the Hoi Polloi drinks menu after listening to Julian and Sandy bits from Round the Horne. Despite the pedigree, and Waddington and Flack’s venues often incorporating queer elements, such as drag and cabaret performances at Bistrotheque, Waddington says it was not an intentional signaling to LGBTQ customers. “We are a queer-owned business,” he says. “We’re very open about that. We don’t hide any of those things, of course, but at the same time, we’re not trying to teach people anything, or to make a protest, or to make a stand — we’re just here, and we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Polari’s afterlife has also expanded beyond the U.K. The Brooklyn-based queer food journal Jarry, which published six issues between 2015 and 2018, employed the term for eating (food or otherwise) as its title, said to derive from the Italian “mangiare,” to eat. Co-founder and former editorial director Lukas Volger, author of the recent cookbook Snacks for Dinner, says Jarry was originally set to be called Goodie, “as in, gay foodie,” which didn’t pan out. “So we spent a lot of time at the chalkboard playing around with things that we learned about Polari,” says Volger. “How it is such a part of a cultural scene … among theater workers … sort of like an artsy thing. I love how food intersected with that. And so we started just looking at what the words in Polari were, and the word ‘jarry’ for food seemed like such a great idea … we could so picture it immediately.”
The name, however, was a deep cut. According to Volger, “we always had to explain” what Jarry was a reference to, although it was “actually a really fun thing to sort of introduce people to.” Volger says that he and co-founder Steve Viksjo did not initially know how Jarry was pronounced; they thought it was jar-ee, but it’s actually pronounced like the name Geri. They found out when they were corrected by Simon Doonan, the former Barneys creative ambassador from Reading, Berkshire, who was a primary Polari speaker before moving to New York in the late 1970s.
Although Jarry approached the intersection of food and community from a different place than Waddington and Hoi Polloi — from its first issue, Jarry was concerned with the politics of queerness in the restaurant industry — Volger also noticed a discrepancy between those who got the reference in the title, and those who didn’t: “I spoke at conferences that were not queer spaces. And the existence of this sort of secret language is so titillating to an outsider. Among gay men and among queer circles, it just makes you feel more connected to this broader history. And so it was kind of interesting introducing it to those two inside and outside types of audiences.”
If Polari appeals to both insider and outsider audiences, it’s probably because, although there are words for many other things, its core concern and raison d’etre is sex. In an email, Baker said that “sex is often referred to through food or eating metaphors anyway, not just in gay slang,” giving the examples of “terms like cheesecake and crumpet” — a U.S. term for scantily clad pin-up girl posters, and a British one for hot women you’d like to get with, respectively. Crumpets are round, yeasted buns that are often compared to English muffins, but they’re slightly different, often squishier and with more pronounced, distinctive holes. They are virtually always served with butter, which melts into and then oozes back out of the nooks. Trader Joe’s sells them, and perhaps the best way to get the crudeness of the metaphor is to go buy some, toast them, smother them in butter, and then take a squeeze.
Cheesecake and crumpet are mostly het terms. (Although they don’t have to be; they just tend to be used that way.) But, as Baker said, as Polari became more obscure, new metaphors replaced it: In Polari, he said, “A young gay man was referred to as a chicken, although this usage died out in the early 1990s and has since been replaced by an Americanism, twink — which is also a food metaphor.”
But even with Baker’s work and reclamations like Hoi Polloi and Jarry spurring contemporary interest in Polari, aside from the loan words it’s given to English (“naff” — which is common British slang for something lame and vulgar — meant a straight guy in Polari, as Waddington points out, derived from “not available for fucking”; in his book Gay Men Don’t Get Fat, Doonan calls it the most important word in Polari, and “quite possibly in the history of mankind”), it is largely a historiographical interest. In Fabulosa, Baker writes that, “As a ‘dead language,’ Polari is to gay men what Latin is to Catholics.”
To the extent that Latin was used by the Church to elevate itself beyond the common, this is a useful comparison. In Queer City, a 2017 survey of London’s LGBTQ history, Peter Ackroyd writes that Polari “afforded a sense of community and belonging among those who spoke it, and sealed them off from the various impositions of the common language.” This was especially important to LGBTQ Brits at the time when Polari was more commonly used — but Ackroyd’s description could be extended broadly to most slang, which is often incubated in subcultures before expanding outward to the general population, if it winds up there at all. If there are words for food in Polari, and food terms replace so much sexual vocab, it’s likely because socializing — the context out of which slang grows — happens around food and drink. Bars especially have played a central role in queer history, and drinking and eating are less segmented in British culture, owing to the nature of the pub.
Yet there is also something cool about subcultural arcana, and an inherent irony in returning to a system born of oppression in places where it’s now possible (if not always comfortable or easy) to talk about more kinds of sex more openly. Although Polari has not been a secret, exactly, to use it now is to signal belonging: We are in on this, and we get it. If you know what we mean, you have good taste, and aren’t naff. Polari is not a food world trend by any means — but some bar or restaurant, eventually, will use it again. And when they do, you’ll know what they’re trying to say.
Sarah Tanat-Jones is a U.K.-based illustrator who is inspired by printmaking techniques and colors from a jewelry box. She loves drawing with ink and playing the drums.