Fantabulosa: The Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang by Paul Baker


Language – you never stop changing, do you? This is evident in both good and bad ways here.

The good: the dictionary of Polari, a mostly dead language used by gay men. Polari, being dead, is time-specific and this makes it good to collate (although it seems to be a little – not too much, but a little incomplete). A mix of Parlyaree, cockney rhyming slang, backwards slang and words cribbed from all over, this book features a good introduction to the the coded language – made mainstream by the characters of Julian and Sandy on the BBC radio show, Round the Horne –  that allowed gay men to say secretly what they couldn’t publicly, and a 60. Examples of Polari in speech include:

How bona to vada your dolly old eke – How lovely to see you (literally: how good to see your beautiful face)

and many more which describe things much more salaciously (and in detail!) but for those who aren’t interested in that, cover your ogles with your lappers, duckie – there’s nada to vada in the larder! There is also a paid app – available in the app stores – by the author and an artist, that features the dictionary on your phone. A brilliant example of how complicated, complex and how much of a language Polari can get is shown here in this poem by Adam Lowe (in which he also invents a few phrases – showing again that language never dies!).

The bad: the dictionary of gay slang takes up over two-thirds of the book and, whilst good, the problem here is that this book was published in 2002. I read it and kept thinking of terms that were missing, or – strangely – incorrectly defined, the most egregious of which is ‘shade. noun: attitude” which is just incorrect. And there is, for example, a definition of shade given in the 1993 doc, Paris is Burning. Mostly it’s just out of date and makes me long for an online encyclopaedia of gay slang- like a wiki or urban dictionary where people can upvote – something I hope already exists. Also, there is a small pool of sources used – hence why I think that an online wiki would suit it much better.

Despite these drawbacks, there are some fascinating and fascinatingly specific terms throughout the book. And being one of the few of its kind, the book is one to pick up if you come across it.

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