I like secret languages. I like the idea of them – that inside our common tongue hide uncommon tongues. Some are complete and different languages; some slip unfamiliar words into our structure and syntax, some use everyday words and grammar to very different effects and ends from our common speech. I like them as collections of words and sounds, and the way vocabulary can slip across the border into our spoken world. I like the way they can hide things in plain sight: secrets, identities, allegiances and philosophies. I’m interested in the worlds they reveal: of marginalised, specialised, disenfranchised, stylised groups of people.

I wanted a slang for the Everness books. The Airish are the tramp-airship privateers of Tesla-punk Earth 3 – every multiverse-hopping adventure needs (a) airships and (b) pirate-alikes who fly them. I wanted them to be a subculture inside the larger London-3 culture, separate and despised by larger society, in much the same way as traveller and Romany cultures are in our Britain. I wanted Everett to be an outsider in as many ways as possible: he’s a geek (but sporty at the same time), he’s Anglo-Punjabi, his parents are separated, he has the key to the multiverse inside his tablet computer, he’s completely alone in an alien parallel universe, and, among the crew of the airship Everness, where he finds family – of a kind – he’s in a subculture of a subculture. One of the givens of writing for a younger audience is that you have to get your main characters away from family. The next trick is to give them a new family – one they’ve chosen over the one they were born into. A new world, a new culture and a new family. So of course I wanted Everett to have to learn a new language: the cant of the Airish. Their own secret language.

Here I faced a problem. I didn’t want to use a contemporary slang – nothing dates worse than yesterday’s hip, Daddy-O. Now did I want to make something up – that felt like just assigning random sounds that to objects and feelings. I wanted words that had done some work, walked around the world a bit and settled into recognisable meanings and contexts. There I got stuck.

Then I remembered Polari.

Polari is – or, in its classic form, was – a secret gay slang – technically a ‘cant’: a jargon often used to exclude or mislead those outside the user-group. It has a long and proudly notorious history, from merchant marine sailors through criminals, prostitutes, show-people and entertainers up into gay subculture. Polari, Palare, Palaray, Palari: whatever you call it, it’s a true outsider language. It has the touch of the trickster in it.

Its roots go deep into counter-culture: the name sounds Italian, Mediterranean (as so many of the words: jarry/manjarry – food; bona – good; buvare – a drink), with roots in Lingua Franca, a trading language used in the Mediterranean from the 11th to the 19th centuries, drawing on North Italian languages and Occitan, from South-West France. Over the centuries Polari/Palari has picked up 17th century thieves’ cant, backslang (saying a word backwards –like riah – hair (there’s a hairdresser (‘crimper’) in Belfast called Bona Riah), Romany, rhyming slang (Vera – gin, from ‘Vera Lynn’), Yiddish and 1960s Soho drug culture. It’s a rich and heady brew.

Polari was used in the London fishmarkets, theatres, fairgrounds and circuses. As many gay men worked in theatre, it was only natural that Polari should spread beyond the stage door and mutate into a private gay language at a time when homosexuality was illegal. It protected gay men from hostile outsiders and undercover policemen, and enabled them to communicate privately: not just a private language, but a secret language, of an outsider culture.

Researchers into ‘lavender linguistics’: the study language used by LBGT speakers – have identified two forms of London Polari in the 1960: West End, drawing from the theatrical tradition, and East End, which features Cockney rhyming slang. East End Boys and West End Girls . . .

In Britain, Polari sneaked into popular perceptions through the 1950s BBC radio Comedy Round the Horne, featuring ‘Julian and Sandy’, two out-of-work theatre chorus-boys, played by the gay actors Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams, who, in addition to outrageous double-entendre, scattered their sketches with liberal doses of Polari, which fazed the listenership not at all.

Polari words have permeated popular English so long and so deeply many are not aware of their origins: naff – generally crap and tasteless; scarper – to run off guiltily; barney – a fight; camp – effeminate; clobber – clothes (also ‘drag’ is a Polari word), and my favourite: zhoosh – to style, tart up, make a bit of a show.

And as Polari entered the language and gay culture became decriminalised, then became generally accepted, then celebrated, so Polari faded. It withered in the light. There was no need for a secret language for a secret lifestyle. It’s still around – passing a gay bar in Dublin I smiled to see a neon sign in the that read ‘Bona Polari spoken here’ – but it’s becoming performance rather than necessity. It’s a thing well worth preserving, and a language of great delight and beauty in its own right – with a vibrant history of outsiderdom; all the way down through its many incarnations. Which was why, when I had that flash of inspiration about a private language for the Airish in the Everness series; I knew instantly that it was right.

I’ve made some changes, added a few Romany words to reflect the particular honour-system of the Airish, but at its heart it’s the same Polari of Julian and Sandy or Morrissey in his song ‘Piccadilly Palare’ on his Bona Drag album. I hope I’m doing my bit in keeping the language, and public perception of it, alive, and evolving it in my own way. It’s been many things, and interest in it is growing again. The more secret languages the better, I say.

The characters in Planesrunner and Be My Enemy (and in the forthcoming Empress of the Sun) use Polari/Palari in the classic way, as the tongue of a minority people, on the edge of society, looked down on and treated as useful outcasts. The parallel between the Merchant Marine of our world and the fictional cargo airships of Earth 3 made it even more irresistible. Everett learns to use it as a tool of identity, to keep secrets and to hide things in plain sight from strangers and enemies, and to say the things to the people he loves in his new ‘family’ that can’t be said any other way. I hope I’m honouring the cant right. It has a noble history.

So the last word must be spoken in Polari then. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence undertook the splendidly onerous task of translating the Bible into Polari. Here, omis and polones, is the Sermon on the Mount in Polari.

1 And vardaing the multitudes, she trolled up into a mountain: and when she was set, his disciples trolled unto her:
2 And she opened his screech, and taught them, cackling,
3 fabed are the nanti dinarly in fairy: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 fabed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
5 fabed are the camp: for they shall inherit the earth.
6 fabed are they which do hunger and thirst after bonaness: for they shall be filled.
7 fabed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
8 fabed are the pure in thumping cheat: for they shall varda Gloria.
9 fabed are the peacemakers: for they shall be screeched the chavvies of Gloria.
10 fabed are they which are chivvied for bonaness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 fabed are ye, when homies shall revile you, and chivvy you, and shall cackle all manner of nana against you falsely, for my sake.

Here endeth the lesson. Go in peace. Bless you all.

By Ian McDonald

Don’t forget – you can follow Ian on Twitter @iannmcdonald 🙂

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