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Digital Subscriptions > Attitude > 267 > Do you know what I’m saying?

Do you know what I’m saying?

Do you speak Polari? Unless you’re over 70 it’s unlikely. The secret language of gay Londoners hasn’t been common parlance since the 1950s. But now a film made in this lost lingo has been sending viewers rushing to the Polari dictionaries. Attitude talks to Brian Fairbairn and Karl Eccleston, who made Putting on the Dish, and veteran queer icon Bette Bourne, who still speaks a bit of Polari to this day…
Kenneth Williams, star of Round the Horne, pictured in 1981
CLIVE BARDA/ARENAPAL

If you’ve ever put on a bit of slap and given your hair a zhoosh before popping out for a bevy, you’ve been speaking Polari. These words – along with naff – are among the last surviving remnants of a language used mainly by gay men in London in the 1950s although its origins can be traced back to the 16th century. But whether the speakers were thieves, Mollies, travellers or queers, the object of switching from English to Polari was always the same: to confuse eavesdroppers. Performer Bette Bourne, 76, who was a founder member of the Gay Liberation Front and went on to create its spin-off theatre troupe, Bloolips, remembers using Polari when homosexuality was illegal in the UK. “If you were standing at a bar having a chat,” he says, “and someone came up and stood nearby you had to switch some of your chat to Polari because that was the secret language that gay people in London adopted.”

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About Attitude

The new issue of Attitude features Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy on the cover, with an exclusive interview in which he discusses life since coming out. Inside we have a Valentine’s special where we look at the broad spectrum of gay relationships, plus columns and advice on dating as transgender, HIV positive, masc, femme, and everything in between. There are also interviews with British actor Douglas Booth and Australian singer songwriter Josef Salvat. Our writer Matt Cain goes home to Bolton for the city’s first Pride, and we chat to our new columnist Juno Dawson about her transition. We also have a feature on the forgotten gay language, polari.
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