Let me preface my remarks about a “gay language” by introducing a couple of novels I’ve written recently. The first, HEART TO HART, has just been released by Amber Quill Press. The other, called SPARRING WITH SHADOWS, is the sequel which should be pubbed in a few months.
These books follow the escapades of a gay man, Michael McCree, and his reluctant partner Simon Hart. The two men, private investigators in 1923 Ireland, look into some very private affairs—yet none more private than their own.
In both novels, I have used a patois commonly spoken and understood by homosexuals at the time, the decade of the “Roaring Twenties,” and even hundreds of years before that. To me, the most interesting and even startling fact is that many of the words are in common usage today—by gays and straights alike—even if some of the meanings have shifted a little through the years.
Some say that straights have always been the last to understand their gay brethren, and their language is no different. As early as the 1600s in Britain and on the continent, a language called “Polari” sprang up among gays and was heard in open markets and street shows, on fairgrounds and in circuses, and especially in the British Merchant Navy. Based loosely on a variant of Italian called “Romany,” it incorporated such disparate elements as slang, circus and thieves’ cant; and later (during World War II) the language absorbed even Yiddish expressions.
The language was widespread, as common as the gay subculture that spread it. Then as now, gays were eager to distinguish themselves in their own community, and to hide their sexual preferences from a hostile society, by the use of a rich variety of words understood only by them.
Those familiar with Gypsies, Travelers and Pavees will find nothing new here!
In doing research for my novels, I found many expressions that were common not only in Britain and Europe in the 1920s, but also in Ireland, Scotland and American urban centers.
Many of the following words were “sneaked” under the noses of censors onto British television starting in the 1960s; and even though the 60s saw the decline of Polari, it has recently made a comeback on such shows as “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and in the mouths of contemporary comedians. Trust the sly Brits to be on top of things. Gives me a whole new appreciation for Monty Python and his Flying Circus. But I digress . . .
In 2002, two books on the subject were published, both written by Paul Baker. They are Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men; and Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang.
The following are some Polari words and expressions. The ones with asterisks are those I’ve used in my novels, words that I find especially textured and evocative of the characters who speak them. They are listed in alphabetical order. Of course, you’ll see many familiar words among these. The surprise, as I’ve mentioned, is that the words were well known by the decade of the Roaring Twenties, and some of them even hundreds of years before then.
*Basket…The bulge of male genitals as seen through their clothing
*Bit o’Hard … Male sex partner
*Bitch…Effeminate or passive gay male
*Bones … Lover, boyfriend, male bed partner
*Brandy … The buttocks; also, pre-cum
*Cod…Vile, nasty, naff
Dilly boy..Male prostitute
Drag…Clothes, esp. women’s clothes
*Lattie … Home, house, flat, room (In Sparring with Shadows, a rented bed)
Naff…Ugly, vile, hetero
*Nanti … Every possible variation of no, not, none, forgeddaboutit!
*Rough trade … A thuggish or rough sex partner (see “trade” below)
*Scarp … (to) Leave, run off
Trade…Sexual encounter (rough trade… a blue-collar, thuggish, or even a violent sex partner)
Tootsie trade…Sex between two passive homosexuals
*Troll…To walk about, esp. looking for trade
*Zhoosh, zhooshy…(verb) To style hair, the adj. meaning “showy” or tarted up
Here’s a tiny excerpt from Sparring with Shadows which uses some of the Polari. The men are in a “gay tavern,” my own invention, and Michael tries to ease a couple off the bench so he and Simon can have a drink:
“Lads, d’ye mind moving on? Me friend and I need a private place to drink.”
Simon saw the bigger man look up with annoyance in his eyes and spittle on his chin. “Nanti that. Take yer bones an’ scarp.”
Simon thought he understood the Polari. “No. Take your boyfriend and go away.” He watched as Michael brought a sovereign from the depths of his trousers and idly flipped it, letting it spin and land back in his palm. The large stranger watched it with greed in his eyes. “But of course ye need a lattie fer your bit o’hard.”
Michael let the coin spin again in an upward spiral. The man reached and snapped the coin from the air, and then he stood. “Come, duckie, let’s find a better roost.”
Simon reasoned that “lattie” must mean some kind of bed, or any place to have sex. He felt himself blushing to be called “a bit o’hard,” knowing that at this moment he was, indeed, rigid as a table leg.
Michael pushed Simon gently onto the vacated wall-bench. “We’ll sit here, lad. Just follow me lead. Try to be pleasant about it, eh?”
I’ve used the language here as I feel it would have been used at the time. Really just having fun! And please note that the word “gay” was used as early as the late 1800s to refer to homosexual men, but not necessarily by gays themselves until the end of the last century, when it was “sanctioned” by major GLBT groups. So in my books, I stuck with the word omi-palone to refer to a gay male.
And last, the inevitable cover/link/bio to my published book containing Polari. The other should follow in a few months from Amber Quill Press.
Erin O’Quinn earned a BA (English) and MA (Comparative Literature) from the University of Southern California. Her life has been a pastiche of fascinating vocations—newspaper marketing manager, university teacher, car salesperson, landscape gardener—until now, in relative retirement, she writes as she looks upon the drought-starved landscape of central Texas.
In addition to Amber Allure M/M titles Heart to Hart, Noble, Nevada and The Chase, Erin has half a dozen published novels. Of those, two are M/M historicals set in the Ireland of St. Patrick, in a day of badass clansmen, cattle drovers, druids, Saxon mercenaries and more. Those books, in “The Iron Warrior” series, are Warrior, Ride Hard and Warrior, Stand Tall published by Siren Bookstrand.
Four mainstream romances round out the historical novels: “The Dawn of Ireland” trilogy and Fire & Silk, all published by Siren Bookstrand.
Under another author name, she has written a four-book series of YA fantasies.
Erin O’Quinn and Four Friends: Behind Closed Doors
Erin’s Historical Romances: SirenBookstrand
Including The Iron Warrior (MM) series
Erin’s Contemporary MM Romances:
Heart to Hart on Amber Allure (retro 1920s)