Baker, Paul. “Fabulosa!: The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language”, Reaktion, 2019.
Our Unique Language
Polari is a language that was used chiefly by gay men in the first half of the twentieth century in Great Britain. It was a time when being gay could result in criminal prosecution, or worse, and Polari offered its speakers a degree of camouflage from the public and a way of expressing humor as well as a way of identification and of establishing a community. From whence it came is fascinating with colorful and varied roots that included thieves’ Cant to Lingua Franca and prostitutes’ slang. In the mid-1960s it came into the limelight by the characters Julian and Sandy, (Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams) on the BBC radio show “Round the Horne”.
In almost every gay community there has been a coded language spoken by the members of the community to each other but not as an established language like Polari.
In “Fabulosa!”, Paul Baker gives us the story of Polari and he does so with “skill, erudition, and tenderness’, going back to its historical origins. He shares its linguistic traits and looks at the ways and the environments in which it was spoken, why it declined, and its surprise reemergence in the twenty-first century. The cast of characters includes drag queens and sailors and “Dilly boys and macho clones.” Baker gives us a wonderfully readable account the language that is funny, filthy, and ingenious.
We have parts of interviews with Polari speakers, whose firsthand recollections are both arresting and funny. The innuendo is very important and therefore Baker manages to sneak one in whenever he can. There is evidence that the language persisted into the 1980s and ’90s in theater circles, and now it is enjoying a rebirth as a cultural curio. I look at it the way Yiddish to the Jewish people has also seen a rebirth.
It is a language that does not want to die and neither do we want it to because its death could also bring about the death of some of the unique attributes of the gay community. Both vocabulary-wise and for sociological reasons, it is important to read this.
Polari came about as a reaction to the torment and harassment of the gay community and for that alone, it must not be forgotten and this explains which is why this book is important. We see Baker’s work here is that of a writer “interested in language who has been led by his subject to think about social oppression.” Polari flourished in the circles of the theater and the merchant navy. There were political uses of vulgar innuendo yet even with this, Baker’s interviews are filled with warmth and good humor.
We become aware of the linguistic lengths to which gay people had to go to hide in plain sight in a culture that was homophobic . Baker writes about the changing attitude towards Polari within the gay community in the seventies and eighties, and on the important reclamation performed by The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. This is also a fine primer for would-be Polari speakers. This book has great style as it presents the roots and history of Polari during a time of days of “illegality, secrecy and peril.” We get a picture of gay underground culture and its transformations “in the years since homosexuality was decriminalized, if not destigmatized, in 1969.”
We see here that linguistics area potent force in social analysis and it brings back the lives of the gay men of the past and preserves the diversity of experiences at an age of hardship and bigotry. “Fabulosa!” is an important celebration of Polari’s message—which is about laughing at your flaws, creating hope from tragedy, and seeing humor in the face of cruelty and oppression.”