Polari Words from Lingua Franca

In the following table, words quoted in How Bona to Vada your EEK! (HB), Polari (P) and Polari wordlist (PW) are cited. Further collation might be done; another useful list is Polari Glossary. Yet another list and a discussion by Ian Hancock is in Trudgill, Peter, Language in the British Isles, (Cambridge, 1984) pp. 390-400. Hancock's list is especially useful in that it gives a phonetic rendering of the words. The other writers simply use the spelling conventions of British English, much as the author of the French wordlist uses the conventions of French orthography. The site Polari wordlist (PW) appears to be no longer reachable.

In the table of numerals below the Polari Glossary is cited as PG and Hancock's numerals as IH. Numerals are not listed in P. It may be noted that for the numerals 7, 8, 9 an alternative occurs by placing together 6-1, 6-2, 6-3. It is unclear why this system is used. Ms. Brummett has offered the following conjecture to me in a private communication, and her conjecture appears to me to have some merit:

… you state, "It may be noted that for the numerals 7, 8, 9 an alternative occurs by placing together 6-1, 6-2, 6-3. It is unclear why this system is used." Here is a possible explanation: the relatively small Polari vocabulary did not always go intact to all areas - i.e., San Francisco might have words not known in New York, and vice versa. The six-based system is probably British, when the sixpenny piece was a common coin, and of relatively high value. Lacking a very pressing need for numerals higher than six, some areas did not have them, and thus when needed, this system could have been used.

I cite only the first spelling the sources offer, and it will be seen that there is wide agreement.

Occitan (Oc) plays an important part in the form of Lingua Franca embedded in Polari. For further information, see my brief discussion of Occitan.

It should be noted that while there seems to be no doubt that words came into Polari from Lingua Franca, they are in a much more corrupted form than those found in Shay Lamora’. In many cases it is not clear if Lingua Franca is actually the source, and so I must confess that my choice must be considered subjective. But etymology has never been an exact science.

HB P PW Derivation Meaning
A
acqua It. water
affaire Oc. affair
ajax Perh. Fr. adjac[en]t near
B
bagadga Oc. bagatge baggage, male genitals
barkey It. barcaiuòlo sailor
batt batt batt Oc. sabata shoe
battery It. battere beat
benar Prob. bene + English -er better
bene It. well
bevvy bevvy It. bere, Sp. beber drink
bevvy omee + Oc. òme, "man" drunkard
beyonek It. bianca? shilling
bijou bijou bijou Oc. pichon small
bimbo bimbo It. dupe
bodega Sp. grocery store
bona bona bona Oc. good
C
camisa It. shirt
capela It. cappèllo hat
capello capello It. cappèllo hat
carnish It. carnes food
carsey It., Sp. casa house
catever It. cattivo bad
charper charper Oc. cercar look for
cull Fr. couille testicle
D
dona
dona It. donna woman
HB P PW Derivation Meaning
F
fake Oc. far, fach do, make
feele feele feely Oc. filh child
feely ome filiome Oc. filh + òme youth
fogle Oc. fuèlha, leaf handkerchief
G
gam It. gamba Oc. camba leg
gent Oc. argent money
J
jarry It. mangiare eat
jogger Oc. jogar play, entertain
joggering omee Oc. jogar + òme street musician
M
medzer It. mezzo halfpenny
multy It. multi many
N
nada Sp. nothing
nanti It. niente nothing
nochy Sp. noche night
O
omi omi omi Oc. òme man
P
palare polari polari It. parlare speak
pogy It. poco (a) little
Q
quartereen It. quattrino farthing
S
salter It. soldo "halfpenny" penny
savvy Sp. sabe know
screeve It.scrivere write
V
vada va(r)da varda It. vedere see
Numerals
HB PG PW IH Number
una una una una 1
duey dewey dewey dooe 2
trey tray tray tray 3
quater quattro,quater quattro
4
chinker chinker chinker chinker 5
sey sayi say sa 6
setter setter setter setter 7
otto otter otter otter 8
nobber nobba nobber nobber 9
dacha daiture daiture dacha 10

An American Polari

[Ms. Martha Brummett of Denver, Colorado, has collected certain words in the United States which appear to have a connection with Polari. The table following these remarks represents her own collection along with her glosses. She collected these in Memphis, Tennessee, which is on the Mississippi river. Not all the words are to be regarded as Polari, but I have preferred to cite this vocabulary as she conveyed it to me, as it is of interest in any case. Here are her comments as to how she came to collect these items. They would appear to belong to the words conveyed by circus folk.--A.D.C.]

My older friends (I hung around with them because they were wittier and more intelligent than most of the women) had traveled extensively, at least when young, to New York, San Francisco, at least. They went to New Orleans frequently. Some of them had been in the Navy, Merchant Marine, or Coast Guard. The older ones had served in WWI or WWII, and had been to the UK or Europe.
The vocabulary I remember was not as extensive as I've seen reported, and was mostly sexual. I can recall (using the wordlist) hearing: Aunt Nell, barkey, bene, bevvy, bod, bold, bona, camp, chicken, cottage, deek (never vada), drag, facha (never heard "eek" or "ecaf", by the way), gam, grope, multy, nada, nix (never nanti), palaver, pogy, ponce, punk, rent, trade. The usual term for a potential trick, or just a guy, etc., was "number", usually pronounced "numba". I've never seen that listed.
You can see that the Lingua Franca-derived terms, particularly the ones not very sexual, give the impression of being Italian...
"Facha" was always used, as I pointed out. I recall other instances of what I assumed was Italian picked up from the Sicilian immigrants to the area, both to the Memphis metropolitan area and the rural counties of northern Mississippi. I think there might be a great deal of difficulty in actually distinguishing these possible origins…
[I] worked lights for Lillie Cass' drag show, this higher education gained from that and listening to guys talk at bars, after Poetry Society meetings, backstage at bars & community theatres, my grandmother's male antique-dealer colleagues, carnies [=circus-workers] privately and at second-hand bookstores and coffeehouses...
Aunt Nell exclamation at something shocking
barkey sailor, seafood
bene good
bevvy drink (usually, not always, alcoholic)
bod body, as applied to another guy
bold outrageous
bona good
camp camp
chicken underage, young
cottage public men's bathroom
deek see, look at
drag clothes usually worn by opposite sex of wearer; clothes in general
facha face
gam leg
grope feel up
multy lots, many
nada no, none etc.
nix no, none etc.
numba (See remarks above)
palaver talk, especially bullshit
pogy small, little
rent hustler
trade hustler

She finds herself unable to gloss "camp" succinctly, but most readers probably get the idea.


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Alan D. Corré
corre@uwm.edu