Disegno #24

FABULOSA!

London

4 February 2020

Typesetters and designers have used what’s called a fleuron for centuries: a small printed flower to denote a division between sections of text. It’s more formal than a paragraph transition but less hefty than a chapter break. As I read FABULOSA!, Paul Baker’s erudite and witty chronicle of the language Polari – devised by gay British men in the first half of the 20th-century so they could communicate in secret – my eyes slithered straight past the fleurons at first. They were just wonky flower stems, I thought. But towards the end I suddenly saw the fleuron for what it really is: a teeny tiny moustache. Turning to the back cover to look at the author’s photograph it made me laugh to see that the one used repeatedly in the book is an exact replica of Baker’s own, right down to the length and angle of incline. Text, language, words and typography are artefacts just as much as kettles or bicycles, and that tiny moustache reinforces the point. Add to that the camp, capitalised title with its perky exclamation mark and the picture is complete – text is design.

Polari was designed for camouflage when homosexuality was still a crime, and FABULOSA!’s affectionate tribute to it makes for gripping social history. Baker plays the part of the warm yet occasionally stern uncle, honouring those who used Polari to communicate in secret, while sometimes telling them off for the acidity of their wit. He has a particular worry about the use of pronouns. “When gay men use she on themselves and their friends, are they parodying women in a way that borders on offensive? Are they simply complicit in their own oppression by adopting language and labels that are used in homophobic ways?” he asks. Having said that, Baker relishes the fact that so many terms for the police in Polari are feminising: “Betty Bracelets, Hilda Handcuffs, Jennifer Justice, orderly daughters, Lily Law.” Yet for all Polari’s problems and limitations – estimates suggest it has only 500 words and 40 phrases – Baker pays touching tribute to it at the end of the book. He’s researched it, taught it and sought out speakers of it for 20 years. But, as he admits, “what I didn’t realize when I started out is that they’d help me to find my own voice.” No-one knows more about Polari than Baker does. He’s preserved it, yet he in turn has been nourished by it. He’s been built by a language that was constructed to enable its users to avoid the police, the courts and the censor – Polari is both crafted and crafty.

Polari has roots in many centuries and places. It’s a wild blend of Italian, Yiddish, Cockney rhyming slang and back slang – those backwards words so beloved by Victorian street sellers. In Polari, hair is “riah”, a nose is an “esong” and a knife an “efink”. Baker has collated impressive evidence tracing Polari back to Cant, used by criminals in the 16th to the 18th centuries. Polari also has a sprinkling of words used by Mollies in the early-18th century – men who dressed up in women’s clothing and met in Molly houses for sex. As Baker explains, Mollies had any number of words for cruising for partners and sex between men: “strolling and caterwauling, bit a blow, put the bite” and “the pleasant deed, do the story, swive, indorse”. Polari also gathered up scraps of vocabulary from the Italianate language of Parlyaree, which was first used by circus people and later by music hall performers. A picture starts to emerge that Polari is more than just a performative, hybrid tongue. It’s an assembled, constructed one too. Until homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967, gay men were routinely persecuted, punished and imprisoned. They created the language of Polari both as a shield and a weapon and, in doing so, added plenty of poisonous wit and high-camp comedy. How could you not love drag queen Lily Savage’s phrase “get that bona jarrie down the screech”? So much more interesting than “eat this delicious food.”

Baker has done more than anyone to research Polari. He’s even collaborated with the artist Joseph Richardson to design a Polari app. Shake your phone and the app generates a Polari word at random. I shook out seven words in a row to see if I could build a sentence. (I immediately discovered one of the language’s limitations: there are way more nouns than verbs.) But this is what I created from the seven words and phrases the app spat out: “Kenza Jennifer justices with nanti pots in the cupboard, fat luppers and long ogle riahs batt in sling backs.”

It’s a sentence, but rather than being transparent it’s opaque – a series of odd marks on the page that, although they’re designed, deliberately conceal meaning. Even if you stare at it, it’s unlikely its message will emerge, although shape and rhythm do. What it actually says is: “Twelve policemen with no teeth, fat fingers and long eyelashes dance on stage in high heels.” You get the idea – Polari wasn’t made for nuance, but for a clandestine discussion about the fundamentals: what does someone look like; how camp are they; and are there any police officers in the vicinity? But it’s still a design project with a function, a purpose and even a linguistic aesthetic.

Baker argues that Polari is not so much a language as an “anti language”, created to “present a hostile front” to outsiders. Not that the language barrier always worked. He recounts a story about two men in an Italian shoe shop secretly discussing the appeal of their attractive male sales assistant: “The Polari words that they used were so similar to Italian that the object of their desire looked up and said, ‘Thank you’. It transpired that everyone in the shop had understood 
the Polari and they all started laughing.”

Paul O’Grady, who performs as the drag act Lily Savage, is a proficient Polari speaker.

Outsiders have sometimes pinched some of the language’s material too. Perhaps none was so unlikely as Princess Anne, who nicked the Polari word “naff” to ward off reporters when she fell off her horse during the Badminton Horse Trials in 1982. And if you happened to be hiding behind the sofa in 1973 watching Doctor Who, you would have heard aliens speaking Polari:

Shirna: Palare the carny?
Doctor: I beg your pardon?
Vorg: Varda the bona palone?
Doctor: I’m sorry? Erm.
Vorg: Nanti dinarli round here yer gills. Ha ha ha!
Doctor: I must apologise. I’m afraid I do not understand your language.

The aliens insisted they were speaking something called Tellurian Carnival Lingo, which added to the joke that Polari is an anti-language designed to hide itself from view. But whether it is borrowed for comic effect, stolen unknowingly, or simply deciphered by Italian shoe salesmen, Polari is, as Baker puts it, “deeper than just a set of words”. The fact that it lacks formal linguistic scaffolding such as conjunctions and prepositions hardly matters. Interestingly, Baker likens Polari phrases to constructed but truncated telegrams or telegraph messages. “As the cost of such messages was often calculated by the number of words, people tended to remove small words like conjunctions and prepositions since they could often be inferred due to the context.” Perhaps the contemporary equivalent of such word economy is the emoji, which is, after all, simply another form of designed, crafted language that trumpets what it is without the usual intricacies and subtleties of conventional words.

It’s important to remember that all language is designed to express what’s needed at a particular time. Run the word “trauma”, for example, through Google Books’s Ngram Viewer (a search engine that charts the frequency with which set words and phrases have been used throughout history) and you’ll see that it simply didn’t appear before the 20th century. It increases in use after the First and Second World Wars, and then soars steadily until the present day.

Polari, too, was designed for a purpose and it declined in use after homosexuality was decriminalised in the 60s. Baker attributes this to a number of factors: the beginnings of the gay-liberation movement; Polari’s mainstream popularisation through comedians Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams’s use of the language in the 1960s radio programme Round the Horne; the deaths of earlier generations of Polari speakers; and the increasing influence of the US gay scene. “Polari, useful in a more repressive time,” writes Baker, “was a casualty of this social change.”

Polari was declared an “endangered language” by Cambridge University in 2010, recalling, as Baker says, “species of wildlife that are being hunted out of existence”. In linguistics there’s what he calls a “sub-field around the notion of language death, a concept that evokes the idea of a language as a living being”. Languages are not, after all, simply made up of lists of words with direct equivalents in French or English or Spanish. A lexicon is a formal code in which culture, time and experience are embedded too. The word artist Barbara Leoff Burge, understanding the importance of language as design, paid touching tribute to the Chinese linguist Yang Huanyi in a work called None of Your Damn Busines (2009). Yang died in 2004 in her nineties, the last speaker and writer of the female-only language of Nüshu. Leoff Burge’s book has been written entirely in stenographers’ shorthand, making it inaccessible to readers, just as Nüshu is. The result is exquisite as design, if deliberately impenetrable as text.

Polari is a greedy language, plundering vocabulary and idioms across centuries and countries. It has heaped up its spoils in flamboyant piles, adding a sparkly adjective here and an outrageous sexual pun there. (Although it has always seemed political in intent, despite the glitter.) In assessing Polari as a communal design project, it’s easy to assume that a language, in order to evolve, must always add more and more to its stockpiles, with users refashioning phrases and inventing new ones. But that’s to ignore language’s alternative design trajectory – the deliberate removal of words and the conscious paring down of forms of expression. After all, to limit can be just as powerful. The poet Philip Metres, in his collection abu ghraib arias (2011), redacts his own verse, scoring out slabs of text in black ink as a military censor would do. The idea that text is a form of political design is made even more striking by the material that forms the cover of the book. It’s called “Combat Paper” and was created by the US army veteran Chris Arendt who served at Guantanamo Bay. Made from army uniforms beaten to a pulp by traumatised ex-soldiers, it gives the collection meaning as object as well as subject.

Polari featured in the passenger ships of the 1950s and 60s, which Baker describes as “places of mass festivity with a holiday atmosphere”.

Polari isn’t a redacted language, but like Metres’s verse it’s designed to obscure and conceal. Amidst all the frivolity and glamour, we shouldn’t forget that its joyous exuberance was a defence against suffering, prejudice and persecution. Baker’s affection for it is profound, although he’s willing to point out its – and his own – flaws. And how appropriate that he makes fun of his and his fellow academics’ own use of language. As a scholar he knows only too well that academics often obscure rather than reveal meaning through their choice of words. This isn’t the kind of fruitful opacity produced by Leoff Burge in her impenetrable work about Nüshu. It’s the kind of obfuscation fostered by those who use long words to show off. Baker mocks his own PhD thesis about Polari, which later became the 2003 book Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men, in which he used phrases such as “cultural economy, performativity theory, sociolinguistic coding orientation and vari-directional double-voicing”. But part of what’s so charming about FABULOSA!, and about Baker as a writer, is that he punctures his own pretensions, inserting a wry, self-mocking “yes, me neither” at the end of this self-quotation.

Baker ends FABULOSA! with the word “larlou”. I looked it up in the glossary at the back and discovered it means “amen”. It seems such an unlikely word to end with that it strikes me as another embedded joke, much like the teeny tiny moustache. Earlier, Baker transcribes a prayer spoken by Sister Muriel of London, a member
of one of the British orders of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a charity and protest group of gay men founded in San Francisco in 1979. As Baker explains, the Sisters placed an “overtly gay twist on religion – mocking and questioning the intolerance of mainstream religion while simultaneously creating a religious arena for gay men”. Some of the Sisters, dressed as flamboyant nuns, canonised Derek Jarman in a camp seaside ceremony on the beach at Dungeness, an event that the filmmaker described as one of the happiest of his life. The prayer ends suggestively:

May Perpetual Indulgence always be our aim, and may the blessings of this beloved Celtic house be upon you and your happy parts now and forever. Ahhhhh-men!

Not since the TV ad for “Ahhhhh Bisto” has so much ravenous – and, in this case, salacious – appetite been crafted into the syllable “Ahhhhh”. And there’s enough double-entendre in Ahhhhh-men! to satisfy even the most outrageous speaker of Polari. Right there, in just one word, is the proof – text is design.