I believe that Polari words commonly spelled even just one or two ways should adhere to the more phonetic system I propose (bona, good, rather than “bonar” or “boner”, although “boner” serendipitously injects a double entendre that would not have displeased Kenneth Williams, who in his diary wrote of “Bonar Shamshes” [Baker 53]). The key to understanding my proposal for Polari spelling is to recognise that it is based on sound, not shape. As such, etymological derivations and paronymous connections may be lost for greater phonetic accuracy. It is this loss that has held English back from reforming its spelling and defeated such luminaries as G. B. Shaw, author of Pygmalion, later to become Jay Lerner’s My Fair Lady (echoes of Emily Howard’s “I am a lady”!), for it would make hundreds of years of scientific, historical and creative literature almost unintelligible to the eye within a few generations. (Take “nature” and “natural”, for example. The former would be written “naycha”, to rhyme with Polari daycha, ten, while the latter, to conform with pronunciation, that is, sound, would be written “nachrel”.) However, the beauty of adopting such a system for Polari is that orthography has yet to be fixed.

Cocteau also said that it was “up to some poet […] to create and stabilise the language and give it a permanent form in writing” (Maalesh, 86). And so, in my own humble — and no doubt deeply flawed — way, I would like to start the ball rolling with my version of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style in Polari. To forestall any objections, I should say at the outset that no one has ever spoken or written Polari as I have set it out below. Perhaps it is time now to confess that one of the main reasons I have devoted so much time and energy to this project is so that I could see what one of my favorite poets looked like in Polari:


EXERCISE IN POLARI (after Queneau)


Shee wauz medza-dives. ’Una a dha troundeling kovze so shended dha troundeling cheet wauz a laung kank been-kove with a tray laung froumerjen. Standing ayjax hir, ya moudha kood varda dhat shee had a barberella eesaung ann poynti nelz ann wauz matlauking a k’uta a dha matlauking goum leik a bugel with a gayping m’ui. Shee dikt arris-sheesh in a shauka kapella with a k’uta a string reon hir in ten a riben. Poy moudha and in zee dhee adarjhio: A shauka mouj iz bonar dhan a kaud sheikel. So with sor dha bati-brays ordering aun, narda laung cheim ankora a barni pauged erbree betwixt dhis feeli-omi ann a beeflat founges with nanti reir. “Nish miniing aun ya moudhez pindroze!” dha feeli-omi bauberid akuzimentay. Aparrementay, evri cheim dhat foxe orded tu shenda or deeshenda dha troundeling cheet dhis baj omi minid aun dheyr loupez a dha pindroze. Dha fashen dhat shee reeaktid, dho, wouni wooda savid oup dhat dha baj omi wauz drayjhing sling-bax! (Moudha akchwellimentay varded: shee wauz drayjhing baytz, sheez reit, pero sanz armernraux!) Shee koodev beed wirsta, dho, for dha baj omi koodev beed fayking dha fogel-hounting or reefing hir, fa dhat dauli. Dha kaulerimentoze binkode oup. “Gardilu, pal! Nanti get bolde with moudha, jous arnt nel an nelliarda!” dha baj omi thretternd, azz dho shee wauz planing ta firikaduzera. Dha feeli-omi moustev savid oup dhat shee wauz bonar if shee nix chivid dha pelarva kwaun shee gaut swishing dhat dha founges nix wauz ordering ta daus alay. Shee palarid daus with P-r-r-r-ay-ay-ay-go!, poy leld a besh-cheet azz praunto azz dha charntz orded oup.

A pogeeleeni a cheimz arfta, moudha varded dhis saym been-kove in frount av dha keyr a dha boura troundeling cheetz kakeling tu a bona vardering an blarzay shvartza drayjhd oup in dha g’uli ogel-fayx, dha karo mauntrell, dha chayn brayslit a gildo-bar ann a gildi marteeni aun hir drei lapa (o vaf, kel groynarjhio!). Yor akchwel shwar! Hir reir wauz laung ann hir mounj mootzi wauz swishing an lish. Shee wauz drayjhing dha teit kafiz an kameesa. Moudha narda pauso varda if shee wauz naf or yor akchwel omi-pelone — u savi, in dha leif — pero moudha nix saviz oup dhat shee wauz aun dha bata or dheyr wauz enni imporchuning ordering aun or dhat shee wauz a houzben or dha bonze a dha been-kove. In noudha lavz, moudha nix gaut dheyr noumba. Enni-heo, nanti charpering omiz wir abeot, akoy-pero moudha nix dorkerst a klevvi if dhey leod dheyr lingz alay eech noudhez kirloze or lamord moudhez kauribounjes. Dha shvartza wauz standing dheyr, a g’uli voge bilaung Parliv’u aun hir ganz, tiping bona dha feeli-omi azz shee, dhat iz, dha feeli-omi, wauz jhoojhing hir self oup. “Sharda!” dha bona vardering omi palarid, fambeling tu hir kovze kapello (nix tu hir kapella, if u nix mei dauli!) ann palarid in aultray, “Varda, hart-fays, u orta siva a noudha krarfni aun ya lepell.” Dha feeli-omi nix leld bona hir lavz. “Ar-u mishooga? Dhis kapello kapt a hambageeni!” “Ann nanti moge?” dha shvartza palarid with an arris-oysta.


Points to Consider:


Apostrophes. English has been in the process of divesting itself of the apostrophe, both for the possessive case and for elision, for quite some time now, not just among the illiterate, but among the educated, with poets leading the charge. Confusion has arisen in cases where the apostrophe took the place of the preposition “for”, rather than “of”, as in “girls[’] high school” (i.e., “high school for girls”). The official Australian Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers obviates the problem of “apostrophe s” or “s apostrophe” in terms such as “driver’s licence/drivers’ licence” (as said in Australasia and North America) by recommending the omission of the apostrophe, and goes so far as to suggest that the “apostrophe in expressions of time is increasingly omitted when these contain a plural form, the words being regarded as compound nouns with sufficient adjectival force to make an apostrophe superfluous” (90), and proceeds to give a number of examples, such as “in ten years time” and “four weeks holiday”. Tell that to Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The zero tolerance approach to punctuation! Note, too, how the editors neatly avoided the controversy by not titling their work Authors[’], Editors[’] and Printers[’] Style Manual! And so Nu-Polari reflects this development toward zero marking the possessive case and elision by dropping it altogether (as seen in “Sheez Parniing dhee Omiz”).

Having said that, I did not manage to banish the apostrophe altogether, for I have had to resort to using it to show the following:


(a)             The absence of the palatal glide in long “u” words, a wholly Polari practice unrelated to English. It needed to be done, however, in the interests of sound, for some people now say “n’ude” and not “nude”, etc. The apostrophe is not used after “d” or “t”, for in less than careful speech, the following palatal glide often changes these letters to “j” and “ch” respectively. (Not just Americans say “dude” — to say “d-yu-de” would strike even the most conservative English speaker as odd or pretentious. Even the son of an English duke — d-yu-ke — imitates John Wayne’s pronunciation by saying “Put up your dukes!” when playing cowboys and Indians. For other exceptions, see Point 5, under Long Vowels, in “Orthography”, above);

(b)             The apostrophe is used before “r” to show the American pronunciation of the weak “r” (i.e., Australians and English say “korna”, corner, but Americans and Canadians say “kor’rner’r”). Admittedly, this looks quite clumsy but it will have to do for now when representing North American speech;

(c)              The apostrophe is used to separate long vowels ending in “r” from a following vowel sound (very rare).


Finally, I wanted to avoid the situation where two homonyms could be spelled differently; naturally, I wanted them to be spelled the same. So I had to change the past participles of verbs ending in “o” from “-’z”, as I originally had planned, to “-ze”, when I came across the homonyms shode and *sho’d. Now, all nouns and verbs ending in “o”, or other similar cases, take on “-de” and “-ze” respectively.)


NB: The double apostrophe (or double end quotes) mark a dialectic glottal stop (e.g., wau”evva for wha’ever).


Capitalisation. Polari generally follows English usage. Note that vocatives are always capitalised (Boyno!).


Hyphens. Hyphenation generally follows English. However, as there are no hard and fast rules in English, application of the hyphen can be erratic and may change from country to country, or even region to region (not to mention era to era; e.g., “to-day”). The hyphen must needs be standardised in Polari, with the following observations:


Hyphens are never used with past or present participles, except when affixed to form other parts of speech (bleeting-cheet-leik, meyrd-kove).




C, consonant

DC, double consonant

JB, Javant Biarujia (as coiner or author)

LV, long vowel

SC, single consonant

SV, short vowel

V, vowel

VC, vowel combination




Baker, Paul, Fantabulosa A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang. London/New York: Continuum, 2002

Borrow, George, Romano Lavo-Lil Word-Book of the Romany or, English Gypsy Language. Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1874 (reissued in 1982)

Butler, Montagu C., Esperanto–English Dictionary. London: British Esperanto Association (Inc.), 1967

Cage, Ken & Evans, Moyra, Gayle: the language of kinks and queens: a history and dictionary of gay language in South Africa. www.books.google.com.au

Cassell’s Italian–English English–Italian Dictionary. London: Cassell & Company Limited, 1958 (1967 edition, 1977 impression)

Chambers English Dictionary. Cambridge: W & R Chambers Limited, 1901 (1988 reprint)

Cory, Donald Webster, The Homosexual in America: A subjective approach. New York: Castle Books, 1951 (2nd edition, 1st printing, 1960)

Green, Jonathan, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005 (2nd Edition)

Le Pennec, Marie-Françoise, Petit glossaire du langage érotique aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles. Paris: Éditions Borderie, 1979

Rasula, Jed & McCaffery, Steve (Eds), Imagining Language: An anthology (“Canting Vocabulary” by Richard Head, taken from The English Rogue, 1665, pp 67–74; “Harlem Jive” pp 86–90). Cambridge/London: The MIT Press, 1998

Young, Hugh, Hugh Young’s Lexicon of Polari. www.2prestel.co.uk/cello/Polari.htm

Yule, Col. Henry & Burnell, A. C., Hobson-Jobson: A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases (1886). Calcutta/Allahabad/Bombay/Delhi: Rupa & Co., 1986 (1989 second impression)


Orthography has been based on an interpretation of the International Phonetic Association, using the English Pronouncing Dictionary by Daniel Jones as its basis.

Other dictionaries consulted are Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, Collins Robert French Dictionary, Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Eric Partridge, Dictionnaire de la langue française by Émile Littré, Kamus Indonesia Inggris (Indonesian–English Dictionary) by John M. Echols and Hassan Shadily, A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary by Arthur Anthony Macdonnell and The Queen’s Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon by Bruce Rodgers.

Other publications consulted are The Andy Warhol Diaries, edited by Pat Hackett, The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley, Chapter Three: “Speaking Gay Secrets”, in Hello Sailor!: The hidden history of gay life at sea by Paul Baker and Jo Stanley, Cow by Susan Hawthorne, The Diaries of Paul Klee 1898–1918, edited by Felix Klee, Impertinent Decorum: Gay Theatrical Manoeuvres by Ian Lucas, Lavengro and The Romany Rye by George Borrow, parlez-vous franglais by Étiemble, The Rear View: A brief and elegant history of bottoms through the ages by Jean-Luc Hennig, Role Models by John Waters, Speaking in Queer Tongues: Globalization and Gay Language, edited by William Leap and Tom Boellstorff, Too Brief a Treat: The letters of Truman Capote by Truman Capote (edited by Gerald Clarke) and Transgender Warriors: Making history from Joan of Arc to RuPaul by Leslie Feinberg.