Polari

I am delighted to read that celebrants of a church service at the theological college of Westcott House in Cambridge have alarmed and annoyed their parishioners (I suppose – it is not clear from the article) by conducting a service in the language, or patois, or pidgin or creole or whatever it is, known as Polari, wherin “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost” is rendered “Fabeness be to the Auntie, and to the Homie Chavvie, and to the Fantabulosa Fairy”. Fantabulosa Fairy indeed. Outrageous.

Polari is best known now as a patois of the homosexual community, used covertly in the years and centuries when homosexuality was still a criminal practice, and made famous in the 1960s by the radio programme Round the Horne, where two regular characters, Julian and Sandy, were fluent in it. It is basically a lexicon of slang terms (I am not aware that it has a grammar), derived mostly from Romance languages, Romani, and a mix of backslang and London slang. Thus we have bona (good), ajax (nearby, from adjacent, presumably) cod and naff (bad), lattie (room, as in room to let), eek (face) and omi (man, from uomo or similar). So bona to vada your eek, as Julian and Sandy would have it.

The more modern association with gay subcultures, however, overlies a much longer history of the patter spoken among fringe communities in London, extending to prostitutes, circus performers, actors and especially fairground workers (where the very similar parlyree had been spoken since at least the seventeenth century), all with their strong Romani connections. It was especially notable in the world of Punch and Judy performers – Henry Mayhew gives a snippet of an interview with a Punch and Judy man which he jotted down in 1851:

“‘Bona Parle’ means language; name of patter. ‘Yeute munjare’ – no food. ‘Yeute lente’ – no bed. ‘Yeute bivare’ – no drink. I’ve ‘yeute munjare,’ and ‘yeute bivare,’ and, what’s worse, ‘yeute lente.’ This is better than the costers’ talk, because that ain’t no slang and all, and this is a broken Italian, and much higher than the costers’ lingo. We know what o’clock it is, besides.”

It may seem to be a little disrespectful to employ this language of social margins in a church service of the Established Church (although better, surely, than the costers’ lingo), but it is also apt, given the marginal figures with whom the Messiah liked to take up back in the day in Palastine. I doubt there was anything quite as salty in the Aramaic of the first century, but had there been, no doubt Jesus would have been fluent in it, what with his entourage of jugglers and puppet-show proprietors, and other scoundrels and riff-raff, not to mention his close association with the Fantabulosa Fairy.

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