In 1951, if you were a well-dressed man with subtle panache sitting at the bar of a cramped pub in Piccadilly Square, after making prolonged eye contact with the man sitting next to you, he may have asked, “Charper charver?”
If you knew what he was talking about, you would have taken it as a compliment. After all, “I find you hot and want to bone” is more or less what “charper charver” means. In fact, it’s just one of a few ways to ask, “Are you looking to fuck?” in Polari, a secret language used by gay men in the U.K. during a time when it was illegal for two men to have sex.
Gay men weren’t the only group who spoke Polari either. Traveling entertainers, actors, wrestlers, sailors, prostitutes, circus folk and gypsies also often spoke the coded language that’s a combination of Italian, Mediterranean Lingua Franca, Romani, London slang and even some Yiddish (among others).
That hodgepodge is partly why the origins of Polari aren’t super-clear. Most historians, however, agree that it developed sometime in the 19th century among different marginalized groups who lived on the edge of respectable society. This includes, first and foremost, queer men, since by January 1955, more than 1,000 such men in England and Wales had been thrown into prison for same-sex acts. (This only changed with the passage of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which legally permitted same-sex acts between men.)
“Polari was used for secrecy, to conduct conversations about people present or to talk about queer sexuality in public spaces — like public transport or cafes — without being understood,” explains Paul Baker, professor of English at Lancaster University and author of Fabulosa!: The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language. “It was a kind of secret password [you could use] if you suspected a new acquaintance might be gay.” Or like Baker mentions, to gossip more discreetly. For instance, one queer man might say to another, “Every time she vardas a dolly basket, she goes meshigener for cottaging,” which roughly translates to “Every time he sees a nice bulge, he goes crazy for public sex.” (Same.)
Sometimes, more established members within the gay scene would speak Polari to “initiate” younger gay men into the queer lifestyle and teach them the community’s values and traditions. “Being christened with a camp name was part of this informal initiation,” explains Baker. (A camp name was often a feminized or silly version of your real name — i.e., Nathan may become Nanette.)
The element of camp was a huge component of Polari, which may seem paradoxical, as the entire point of the language was to be secretive and remain undetected among larger, oppressive straight cultures. But in certain safe spaces, like the theater, Polari speakers spoke with an over-the-top, dramatic flair. “Drag queens were the High Priests of it,” Baker says. “There was a sliding scale, though, from those who knew a few words that they used occasionally, to those who conducted whole conversations in it, to those who were constantly ad-libbing and inventing new words and variations on old ones.”
With the passage of the Sexual Offences Act, though, fewer and fewer people felt the need to use Polari. “It started to be seen as old-fashioned,” Baker says, a perception that only grew once the language started appearing in mainstream pop culture like the 1960s BBC radio show Round the Horne, which starred two Polari-speaking characters. (As any queer can tell you, when the straights start picking up anything gay, especially language, we drop it from our culture ASAP.)
That said, in recent years, there’s been renewed interest in Polari among younger queers in Britain (and to a lesser extent the U.S.), if mainly in an academic context. “Part of it is the fashion cycle: Things are outre, then fashionable, then mainstream, then uncool, then hideous, then forgotten, then rediscovered, then quaint, then interesting, then fashionable again,” says Baker. “But there’s also been a re-evaluation of those original Polari speakers, and a growing sense that gay history is worth remembering and that the people who spoke Polari did so in times where it was much harder to be gay. So despite most of them not being especially political, they were radical in their own way, and perhaps without their persistence and cheerful nonconformity, things wouldn’t have worked out as they did.”
Along these lines, in 2018, George Reiner and Penny Burkett, both in their mid-20s, wrote an entire book, cruising for lavs, predominantly in Polari. Learning to speak the language made the two authors contemplate some of the potential advantages of reviving the dying language. “With the dematerialization of queer bodies through dating apps and the gradual disappearance of queer physical spaces like gay bars or gay clubs,” Reiner told Dazed, “the revival of a language like Polari offers the possibility of an alternate queer linguistic space.”
Yet, in a sense, we already have a modern-day Polari. Head to any club in NYC and you’ll hear a gay man say things like:
- Boots the house down, Mary
- No tea, no shade, no pink lemonade
No, it might not technically be considered camp, but it’s definitely over-the-top, feminine and flamboyant as all hell, just like Polari. Besides, most straight folks (especially those who don’t live in gay-friendly metropolitans) will have absolutely zero idea what these gays are talking about. And just like Polari, this new queer vernacular takes from and combines language from other marginalized groups, especially African Americans (and Black women, specifically). All the while, queers continue to use terms we don’t even realize come from Polari — e.g., “Cruising for rough trade” originated with not-so closeted, Polari-speaking Brits.
So even though in 2020 we’re not hitting on the hot, questionably gay guy at the gym with “Charper charver?,” we may nonetheless eye-fuck him in the locker room sauna and whisper “Trolling for D?” in his ear.
Different words, but still queer, still esoteric and still capable of getting you laid if you say them the right way.