BRITAIN: Church Of England Apologizes After Trainee Priests Hold Service In Gay Slang Language “Polari”

The BBC reports:

A Church of England theological college has expressed regret after trainee priests held a service in the antiquated gay slang language Polari. The service at the chapel of Westcott House in Cambridge was to commemorate LGBT history month.

The congregation was told the use of the lexicon was an attempt to “queer the liturgy of evening prayer”. But officials said it had not been authorised and was at variance with the doctrine and teaching of the church.

Polari is thought to have originated in Victorian London but fell out of use as homosexuality began to be decriminalised in England in the 1960s. One person present at the service told BBC News it was led by an ordinand – a trainee priest – rather than a licensed minister.

The congregation was also made up of trainees. While they had been given permission to hold a service to commemorate LGBT history month, a Church of England source said the college chaplain had not seen the wording of the service. The translation was based on the Polari bible, a work compiled as a project in 2003 by the self-styled Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

A couple of years ago I posted the below clip in which gay men speak in Polari. You might want to turn on the subtitles.

  • Gustav2

    Wait, there are CoE trainee priests who are gayer than thou? Who knew?

    • Stogiebear

      The only thing gayer than a CoE trainee priest is the organist/choirmaster. Maybe a bishop . . .

      • Reality.Bites

        Congratulations, Stogiebear.

        You are the first person in recorded history to successfully complete the sentence “The only thing gayer than a CoE trainee priest.”

        The most talented of writers, punsters, lexicographers and comics have till now failed to come up with anything gayer than CoE trainee priest.

  • Ernest Endevor

    I knew it as a theatre slang in London. Oo! Varda the bona omi! Slap your eek, dear.

    • Robert Pierce

      I remember that well. Indeed, polari/parlari was still very much in use during the 70s in London. It was often used by one of the older drag queens, “Mrs. Shufflewick” at the Black Cap pub during “her” performances. I’d often here some of the bar tenders at the A&B club in Soho use it. At times it was quite amusing depending on who was using it. I remember one of them upon seeing a new pair of shoes I had on say to me..”bona bats” (nice shoes).

      • Ernest Endevor

        I did a show with a girl who was understudying and was well known to the dancers. Her surname was Ranger and, taking a jaundiced view, the boys called her Palone Ranger. I’ve been curious about its etymology and wondered if it derived from the Edwardian faux Latin/French slang the name of which I can’t remember: e.g. “Je suis fatigare”. Back-slang was a way for crooks to talk in public without civilians being able to understand. Polari, on the other hand, seemed to broadcast that one belonged to a particular group.

        • Robert Pierce

          Fascinating stuff. “Palone” was one of the widely used words for a young woman of course. Interestingly, Palone happens to be an Italian surname.

          • Ernest Endevor

            Exactly, there’s an Italian/Latiny/Spanish flavor to it.

        • Câl

          This may not be completely right as it was explained to me in the nineties by a man then in his late seventies who had been a chorus boy among other jobs and just loved entertaining anyone who would listen with stories of gay history but, Polari, was actually an eclectic language that took words, phrases and ways of saying things from a number of sub-cultures and ethnic groups that would have been around in the London of the first half of the 20th century. It was a magpie language, using the most amusing or camp words from a lot of sources. So that there is your faux Latin slang (eg “vada” for “see”) then Cockney slang words, criminal back-slang such as “riah” for “hair” which could be “zhoosh”-ed into a better look, which he told me came from Yiddish, and there are other words from the gypsy language and even the various languages mixed together used by the “lascars” or sailors from all over asia who worked in the merchant navy as well as others. He told me that while the sixties was still quite class-bound, gay men of different classes mixed more than most and not just in the stereotypical middle-class man after a bit of rough. It actually seems to have internalised a bit of the homophobia of the time in that a gay man was an “omepalone” or womanly man, so not all sweetness and light in the Polari world.

          • Ernest Endevor

            You got me so nostalgic I fixed avocado prawns for lunch. I only just managed to stop myself from preparing spaghetti on toast. Absolutely right about polari and it’s important to remember that it was spoken, not written. EG, I always thought it was ‘bona homme’ for handsome man—comically mispronounced French? pronounced ommi—and never saw ‘omi’ before. In my limited experience, polari was a lingo spoken for comic effect by a sub-set of gay men. It denoted the flamboyant effeminacy of traditional chorus boys in West End musicals and beyond. During its many years of touring, Novello’s operetta The Dancing Years was usually referred to as The Prancing Queers; a not entirely affectionate soubriquet. I think that by the 50s, polari was a thing of the past kept ironically alive by those ‘in the know’. In its hey-day, what your friend perhaps remembered, it would have been a slang spoken back-stage, in dressing-rooms, digs, and rooming-houses. It was never respectable and would have been alien to the vast majority of gay men. The 60s were extremely class-bound—so are 2010s—but gay men had a certain fluidity as they moved between classes—one reason why respectable Whitehall found us so threatening, as was claimed during the discussions over Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, we made alliances, often sexual but not exclusively, across boundaries of rank and class. It most certainly represented a massive amount of internalized homophobia. Think of the ’60s and the characters in The Boys in the Band calling each other ‘Mary’ and referring to each other as ‘she’. I’ve never in my life allowed myself to be addressed as such. I know I’ve posted this before, but if you haven’t seen it I urge you to watch Victim. It’s on Netflix. Dirk Bogarde is fine and put his career on the line to get the film made. What makes me laugh is the fact that the homophobic brother of Bogart’s wife was played by a gay man we knew very well. He lived for years with one man. Fine actor with a distinguished resume. I picked up the phone a few years back to hear him say matter-of factly, “Oh hello. I’m dying and thought I’d ring up to say goodbye. How are you?”

    • ChrisMorley

      These BBC Light Programme comedy classics are still very popular and repeated regularly on the BBC’s digital repeats channel Radio4Extra.

      As a child and teenage gayling I remember feeling a frisson of recognition that these were speaking to me, even if many of the words (and the concept of Polari) were unfamiliar.

      • Ernest Endevor

        Round the Horne, Beyond Our Ken, “Oooh, Ron…!” Glad to know they still continue. I still say that Kenneth Williams invented Maggie Smith.

        • Dazzer

          Kenneth Williams did help create all of Maggie Smith’s mannerisms. They were very good friends.

          When she was a young ingenue, Smith hung out with a lot of comedy actors. He first stage appearance was with Ronnie Barker.

          I can’t remember the play, but Kenneth Williams (who people forget started as a thoroughly respectable straight dramatic actor) was playing the French Dauphin and it was Maggie Smith’s first west End appearance. The two became great friends and stayed that way until his death.

          • Ernest Endevor

            St Joan? I thought they started in review together.

          • Dazzer

            Spot on. Thank you for that. I couldn’t remember and was too lazy to look it up.

            Yes, they probably were in review together at various times – but everyone was at one stage or another. I wouldn’t classify ‘review’ as West End, though. It was more often cabarets and dinner clubs than the stage.

            Maggie Smith started off in rep theatre, so she’d have been the noble, innocent heroine dying on stage at the hands of Jack the Ripper one week and a pie-in-your-face clown the next.

            One of the greatest things about rep, back in the day was that it massively extended any given actor’s range.

            I think it was in St Joan though that Williams and Smith really hit it off and they became long-term friends – and Williams became Smith’s mentor.

            I should look all of this up – I’ve got all kinds of biographies around here somewhere. However, I’ve come back from a wonderful boozy Sunday lunch with some old friends, and I can’t be bothered at the moment.

            I will accept any corrections you want to my recollections at the moment, because you’re far more likely to be correct than me.


          • Ernest Endevor

            I really don’t think so. The hubby worked with her and was very much aware of them. Revue was a West-End staple with its own stars. They both met in Share My lettuce, a hit of its day. I cannot imagine either of them in an actual production of St Joan and I very much doubt that she was ever in rep. So far as I know Smith’s first West End legit play was Jean Kerr’s Mary, Mary. I think you’re confusing music hall, which was mostly to be seen in the provinces by the ’30s at any rate, with revue which was glamorous and intimate. Friend of ours did one back in the ’50s—he’s a distinguished stage actor, it wasn’t unusual for performers to ross over—that closed at the interval of its first night, which might be a record. TV variety and satirical shows finished off revue which, BTW, was not always comic. Pinter wrote a piece that was performed by K Williams that became quite celebrated. Later he played the Inspector in the first production of Orton’s Loot with Ian McShane, that closed out-of-town and didn’t come in.

  • John Calendo
  • Do Something Nice
  • JoeMyGod
    • stuckinthewoods

      “Round the Horne” is how we did. Wonderful daffy show.

      • Elliott

        “Hi I’m Julian and this is my friend Sandy.” Loved loved loved them!

    • leastyebejudged

      off the rails I was…

  • unsavedheathen

    Polari is a great example of the beauty and creativity spawned by oppression. When speaking your mind about key elements of your very being could get you seven years at hard labor or killed, you invent a language.

    • Brian in Valdosta

      One’s very survival depended on the creation of such a secret code. We saw it here in the U.S. with negro spirituals and the way that slaves singing in the fields would broadcast news and updates about possible escapes in the coded lyrics of their songs.

      It’s rather chilling, when I think about it. Chilling because I remember having to speak in such code with my gay friends in the mid-80s when I was at university in upstate New York. But it is also chilling because six generations of my (mother’s) family were slaves in Virginia, and I have imagined them using similar codes for their survival.

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  • stuckinthewoods

    “Bold!” Julian and Sandy lines from “Round the Horne” are part of our personal lingo.

  • Yalma Cuder-Zicci

    If it was to commemorate LGBT history month, it was an inspired choice and should make people think about the history. What’s the problem?

    • Gustav2

      The problem is the few people who still regularly attend CoE church services are older and much more conservative than the general public. “The number of people attending Church of England services each week has for the first time dropped below 1 million – accounting for less than 2% of the population – with Sunday attendances falling to 760,000.”

      • Yalma Cuder-Zicci

        I still don’t get it. If they are so conservative, what kind of LGBT commemoration did they expect in the first place? Unless it was the idea of “queering the liturgy”, which I can see how if it were presented that way it could be thorny.

        • Gustav2

          The making of the liturgy more gender neutral and less offensive to women is still an issue for many, forget about “queering’ it.

          Plus ‘The Queens English’ must be used!

          • grada3784

            Instead of The English of the Queens?

          • Menergy


          • Is gender neutral liturgy a thing in other languages besides English? Is it even possible in Spanish, Italian or French?

        • ChrisMorley

          The CoE has strict rules restricting what you can say or do in its church services. This was way outside the rules of authorised services, so rapped knuckles.
          It would have been appropriate to utter some bland platitudes about inclusion.

          • Gustav2

            The more bland the better.

          • Dazzer

            I disagree with that.

            if the Church of England were commemorating two centuries of missionary work, it would be entirely appropriate to have a service in pidgin-English.

            In fact it would be seen as a celebration of the Church’s history and successful ability to deal with other cultures.

            The only problem here is that it was in Polari. Polari reeks of sex – and is therefore unacceptable in the eyes of some churchpeople.

            The Bishop of Buckingham did an interview on Channel 4 News a couple of days ago about the alleged physical abuse case re: John Smythe that is causing ructions throughout the Anglican communion.

            His comments pretty well nail all the problems with the evangelical wing of the CoE that is based on hypocrisy rather than any essential ‘truth’.

            I recommend you have a look at it:


      • canoebum

        The fact that the few regular attending members of the Church of England are older and more conservative makes the Polari sermon even more appropriate and inspired. It was, after all, those older and more conservative people who were doing the oppressing back in the 1950s and 60s.

        • Gustav2

          But those folks, who will not change, are the core of the congregations anf support the church. It is a know you audience thing.

    • Nic Peterson

      It reminds a small group of people of an inconvenient fact: that we exist, we have a history and a future.

    • JCF

      The hierarchy of the CofE is a big fat unChrist-like ROADBLOCK to the LGBT-affirmation rising up from the ranks. Thank God that here in the U.S., the Episcopal Church broke through this barrier more than a decade ago!

  • Xiao Ai

    ,And Jesus sayeth, “NAILED IT!”

  • denbear

    I didn’t know the Sister’s had translated the bible into Polari. Read the news and actually learned something. amazing.

    • John Calendo

      Thank you for this. This was great. It needs more likes! Get on it, boys and girls!

    • BudClark

      This is WONDERFUL! I knew NOTHING about the subject!!

  • Acronym Jim

    The party doesn’t really start until the gyreing and gimbeling in the wabe begins.

    • Natty Enquirer

      Is that your vorpal blade or are you just beamish to see me?

      • Acronym Jim


    • Robincho

      You have to hit it right — not too long after the gyreing and gimbling, but well before those pervy borogoves go getting all mimsy like they do…

  • Roger

    In Brazilian portuguese we also have a specific gay slang, that mixes in african (mostly old Yorubá) words, and was wildly spread by the drag community, the Pajubá. And thanks to the fashion industry a lot of pajubá words made its way into mainstream talk!

    Yorubá is preserved as it is the ritual language of the brazilian-african religions, that were always very receptive to the gay men and women. These religions have been a saving grace for the gay community, since every time the christianists TRY to advocate religious liberty they are forced to acknowledge the all gay welcoming brazilian-african religions!

    • ChrisMorley

      The wonderful JMG education service enlightens us all. Thank You.

    • Many moons ago, I was part of a panel presentation for an American Anthropological Association conference. It was part of an on-going effort on promoting Lanvender Linguistics, or how the LGBT community uses words to both hide in public and to secretly interact with others who are potentially also LGBT but not yet out to the questioner. For example, one of the presenters talked about “Lesbian Tongue Technique”–an example was the use of the code word “empowerment.” A lesbian student was trying to determine if the librarian was lesbian, and mentioned she was interested in books on empowerment.

      Since i was always doing lectures that involved Native American “stuff” for a change, I presented on gay speak within the Filipino community–Swardspeak (also known as Bekimon or Bekinese). Sward is the Pinoy (Tagalog) slang word for a gay man. One example would be the use of the term “X-Man,” to refer to someone who has recently come out, particularly if his former persona had been hypermasculine and is now behaving in a more effeminate way. Just so–X-Man—“Ex-man.”

      In case you’re wondering what I know about Pinoy culture–during the Asian Exclusion Act (the current presidential attempt to ban Muslims was hardly the first federal approach to oppressing others) Asian men were not permitted to bring over Asian women to marry once they had immigrated here. As a result, many Asian men intermarried with Native American women, since Native people didn’t always have the same racist attitude as the dominant culture. The ethnic mix of Native American (remember, historically one of the first ports of call for sailing ships coming in from the far east, would have been Seattle–in this case, the Native American people were usually from the Pacific NW coast, or from SE Alaska) we have a common term “Indapino” for someone who is half American indian and half Pinoy. In my direct bloodline, i don’t have Asian heritage, but two of my sisters married brothers who are indapino, and i have several nieces and nephews who are a quarter Pinoy. As a result, I’ve often been involved with Filipino communities. When I first moved to San Francisco, I joined the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance and attended a lot of gay Asian/Asian-American functions. I was originally offered full membership as as “proto-Asian,” (I’m often mistaken for Asian/Asian-American if i just pull my hair back and don’t braid it) based on the idea American indians got here via Siberia, but I politely declined and remained an associate member (non-Asian members were associates, and couldn’t vote).

  • BobSF_94117

    The Closed Captioning almost does a better job on the polari than it does on the British English.

  • Ben in Oakland

    I. It’s not be an actual homosexual. I never heard of this.

    • Dazzer

      You’ve probably heard Polari words and didn’t know they’re Polari. That’s no shame on you, though.

      • BudClark

        I couldn’t understand a word of it, even with the closed captioning, and I’m a 72-year-old (U.S.) queer.

  • andrew

    It’s all mythology, no matter the language in which it is spoken.

  • Does google translate into Polari?

  • karmanot

    I joyfully await the Musical!

  • Dazzer

    I’m not sure subtitles will help with that film above.

    It’s a shortened version of a somewhat longer film that had more Polari in it.

    The captions don’t actually tell you what is happening.

    Basically, the guy with the cigarette and the guy with the book are gossiping.

    Cigarette man fist tells a soty about a mutual friend who had a disastrous haircut – but then got it sorted out.

    Then goes into a story about how that friend was up before the magistrate for cottaging (cruising) in a public toilet and being entrapped by the police. The magistrate went easy on the gay guy and asked him if he was sorry. The gay guy said yes, but later told his friends that he’d been even more sorry when he saw the size of the police officer’s dick.

    The drama of the film is when cigarette guy goes on to tell a story about how he was nearly entrapped by the police, but he left the public toilet in time and when he was accosted by a copper, said: “There’s a queer in there – you ought to arrest him”.

    Book guys spits in cigarette guy’s face because he’s betrayed another gay man.

    (In the original, longer film, there’s a bit more gossiping that establishes the two guy’s characters.)

    I love Polari and I don’t think it’s a dead language at all. In fact, there’s an increasing need for it. The slang doesn’t need to be treasured as a relic of the past, increasingly, in an uncertain world, it needs to be established as a practical form of communication by people who share a certain fellow-feeling.

    If anyone wants to know what the Polari Bible is, ave a look at:

    Even if you’re not into religion of any sort, the Polari Bible is a wonderfully interesting piece of gay history. And very funny, too.

  • SDG

    I WILL stop laughing, soon, I promise… not sure when.

  • rednekokie

    Hmmm — I’ve been aware I was gay for 65 years of my 80 so far. Never heard of this — but then, it is British, not American. I suspect no Englishman would know what you meant if you asked if someone were a friend of Mrs. King.
    The two in the video really don’t need it — both of them are gay enough that only an idiot would think they were anything else.

    • Gianni

      I’m right with you. Let it up to the Brits to come up with such nonsense.

    • jixter

      Interesting, rednekokie! I never heard of being “a friend of Mrs.King” but I did learn about asking “Do you know Sully?” Maybe that was one of the differences between New England and Oklahoma gay culture? I always presumed that “Sully” was short for ‘Sullivan’, a common, Irish, New England surname.

      Mainly, most public, sexual communication was done with eye contact.

  • jixter

    Is this a joke?

    • Tempus Fuggit

      No, it’s not a joke.

      • jixter

        Well, live and learn, I guess. I came out privately in 1970 and publicly in 1972. There were a few ‘code-words’ in use then that I picked up but the rest of gay life was all standard English. I bought a copy of “The Queen’s Vernacular’ and never found any use for 99% of its entries. Interesting reading, though.

  • Tempus Fuggit

    Because god totally cares what language you pretend he exists in, you guys.

  • leastyebejudged

    I’m sure SOME of us remember this:

    The Piccadilly Palare
    Was just silly slang
    Between me and the boys in my gang
    “So bona to vada. oh you
    Your lovely eek and
    Your lovely riah”

    So why do you smile
    When you think about earl’s court ?
    But you cry when you think of all
    The battles you’ve fought (and lost) ?
    It may all end tomorrow
    Or it could go on forever
    In which case I’m doomed
    It could go on forever
    In which case I’m doomed

    Bona drag…

  • Wow! And here I thought I was such an educated old queen but I don’t remember ever hearing about this. Thanks to everyone for the education.

  • Robert Conner

    I’d heard of Polari and “Molly houses” of course, but never heard it. Very interesting.