The “underground gay language”

banner smokeLet me preface my remarks about a “gay language” by introducing a series of novels I’ve re-released recently.  The titles, as seen in the banner above, are: Heart to Hart, Sparring with Shadows, To the Bone, Thin as Smoke, Masters of Cane.

Second, 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 have stuck with the Polari word omi-palone to refer to a gay male.

backalley boysThese books follow the escapades of a gay man, Michael McCree, and his reluctant partner Simon Hart. The two men, private investigators in 1923-1924 Ireland, look into some very private affairs—yet none more private than their own.

In each of the novels, I have used a patois commonly spoken and understood by homosexuals at the time, the decade of the “Roaring Twenties.” Some of the words, mostly from Italy, were used even a few hundred 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 somewhat through the years.

In the Gaslight Mysteries, the young “back alley boys” speak with a lot of Polari mixed in. No, they’re not homosexuals, but they know the streets—and so they know Polari.


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.

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Imagine you are a homosexual male in, say, 1800. Strict laws on sodomy make it impossible or perilous for you to reveal yourself to any but fellow gays. You and your fellows—street performers, actors, artists, dock workers, sea-farers, to name only a few— long ago found ways to tell each other you’re available for friendship. And that way, aside from body language, is Polari.

You’re still in the 1800s, remember. Not that other men in “polite society” are not gay. Far from it. But if they want to delve into the subculture, they’d better get themselves to the docks, or to some underbelly of the city where they can meet and identify themselves to other gays.

So in my books, even the street-wise urchins sprinkle their speech liberally with Polari. And gays gather in a Molly House called “Paddy’s,” where everyone knows what it means to play at cods-catch.

The word “polari” is probably derived from the Italian parlare, to speak. Indeed, most of the early code words used by gays began as Italian words and morphed into a kind of special slang.

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Polari  was heard in open markets and street shows, in theaters, 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. Homosexuals, branded by such epithets as “the third gender,” were eager to distinguish themselves in their own milieu, and to hide their sexual preferences from a hostile society, by the use of a rich variety of words understood only by them.

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.

~Modern Use~

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 made a comeback in the 90s on such shows as “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and in the mouths of U.K. comedians. Trust the sly Brits to be on top of things. Gives me a whole new appreciation for Monty Python and his Flying Circus.

There is currently a discussion in certain linguistics circles as to whether Polari has become merely a footnote in history, as the gay culture has not only become accepted but even sought after in some ways by the wider society.

Obviously, the growing acceptance of homosexuality is something we may cheer for. But has that newfound attitude actually doomed a colorful part of world history? Will Polari die along with the older generation of gays?

Some argue that the antiquated Polari is merely “a memory in the mind of old queens” and should be buried in the face of a new appreciation of cultural diversity and a much deeper understanding of homosexuality and homoerotica.

 I will not argue the point here, although you can put me in the corner of those who want Polari to retain its rich history and serve to remind us not just of prejudice but of sly bonhomie. Not merely gay-bashing as a historical footnote, but gay-embracing!

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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.

~Short Glossary~

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

*Bencove … Good friend

*Bit o’Hard … Male sex partner

*Bitch…Effeminate or passive gay male

*Blag…a pick-up


*Bones … Lover, boyfriend, male bed partner

*Brandy … The buttocks; also, pre-cum


*Cod…Vile, nasty, naff

*Clevie. . . Vagina

Dilly boy..Male prostitute

*Dish…Butt, buttocks


Drag…Clothes, esp. women’s clothes

Fantabulosa . . . Fabulous, wonderful

*Kaffies…Baggy trousers

*Lattie … Home, house, flat, room (In the novels, a rented bed)


Naff…Ugly, vile, hetero (i.e, “not available for fucking”)

*Nanti … Every possible variation of no, not, none, forgeddaboutit!



*Omi-palone…Homosexual man

*Rough trade … A thuggish or rough sex partner (see “trade” below)

*Savvy … Understand

*Scarp … (to) Leave, run off (also “scarper”)


*Shush bag … Purse or carryall for money, especially illicit funds; in Masters of Cane, the bag carrying proceeds from criminal extortion

Trade…Sexual encounter (rough trade… a blue-collar, thuggish, or even a violent sex partner)

*Troll…To walk about, esp. looking for trade

*Zhoosh, zhooshy…(verb) To style hair, the adj. meaning “showy” or tarted up

~In the Books~

Here’s a tiny excerpt from Sparring with Shadows which uses some of the Polari. The men are in a “gay tavern,” a Molly house. Michael tries to ease a couple off the bench so he and Simon can have a drink:

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“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?”

In the latest series novel Masters of Cane, the street boys Squeak and Copper speak Polari, although Simon has taught the older boy “the king’s English.” In this scene, Copper is upset at losing his little friend, his bencove, and Michael tries to console him.

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“Here’s what I think. So ye need not cr—um, don’t ye worry, Copper. I think he’s smarter than all of us. I think Squeak never left his duty. I think he caught a ride on the back of that constable car, that cabouche, an’ he’ll find a way to let us know what he finds out.”

Simon, still kneeling at the boy’s feet, looked up into his green eyes. “When the car left, where were you?”

“I was already scarpering to the sweet shop to help Mr. Flanahan an’ vada Squeak.”

“So if Squeak was on the back of the car, you couldn’t see him. Am I right?”

“Aye. Ye’re right.” Copper’s thin face broke into a wide grin. “I should a’ savvied. Squeak would never let any omi joggle ’im. I can screeve…um write, Mr. Simon, because ye showed me. But Squeak—he savvies how to scarper.”

And that was about the most apt description of the tiny ragamuffin that Simon had ever heard. For him, moving fast and staying out of arm’s reach was a way of life.



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Here are a few sources for the Gaslight Mysteries.

Find all five of them on this new Kindle Series page: 

This source is outstanding. It gives links, excerpts, reviews, tropes, key words, and much more:  Queer Romance Ink