Polari, gay and thieves’ cants, speaking in cant as an act of defiance and assorted musings

Anonymous asked: The thing you posted about slang dictionaries and its neglect got me thinking. Is it really a bad thing if people ignore slang and cant like that? Back before the 60s , there was a cant used by the pre-modern LGBT community in the UK, called Polari. It was obscure to most and probably helped a lot of people stay safe for decades. Then it showed up on a radio show and plenty of its words became common, possibly outing people. It might even have cost lives if the law wasn’t changed 2 years later.

You have a point there, but it doesn’t quite work that way, you’ll be happy to know. 🙂

Speaking in Cant makes it difficult for outsiders to understand what you’re saying – not what you are. It’s not a secret code designed to pass for innocent communication when intercepted, and to conceal the speaker’s true identity as member of the Secret Club. On the contrary, it’s an identifier. If you speak it in public, you pretty much announce to the world that you move in strange circles. Outsiders may not know what you’re on about, or even in which circles you move, exactly, but they know for sure you’re not mainstream. If Polari, or Thieves’ Cant, was meant to conceal your identity, it would sound like vanilla English, and mean something different only to those in the know.

Polari, like Thieves’ Cant, sounds nothing like vanilla English.

So if you hear a man say “As feely ommes we would zhoosh our riah, powder our eeks, climb into our bona new drag, don our batts and troll off to some bona bijou bar. In the bar we would stand around with our sisters, vada the bona cartes on the butch omme ajax who, if we fluttered our ogle riahs at him sweetly, might just troll over to offer a light for the unlit vogue clenched between our teeth” [*], it may sound like gibberish to you but there’s one thing you know: that’s not a man in the closet. He can’t be outed, he’s out already, and gives no fucks whatsoever.

It’s true that Polari started losing steam at the exact moment (and partly because) it became a thing in mainstream media, in the late 1960s. But to my knowledge no one was outed because of that, and it certainly couldn’t have cost lives. The law that you mention is the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexual acts in England and Wales (in certain cases; it would a very long road until full equality). Until then the penalty was prison, not execution, geez. (The hair-raising practice of chemical castration, that Alan Turing went through, was offered voluntarily as an alternative to prison.)

In any case, before that law came into effect, being openly gay would get you to all sorts of trouble, but it’s not like they’d arrest you without due process and take you out back and shoot you. The law punished gay sex, not dressing and talking and flirting. So there was a whole gay (sub)culture, and many many people chose to flaunt it rather hide it, even in the face of appalling discrimination.

…And that’s where Cant as an identifier comes in. Cant is a language, and language is built by – and in turn builds – communities, collective identities. Groups that the mainstream culture shuns and/or the law harasses build communities of their own, and sometimes develop a language of their own. One that may hide what they say but doesn’t hide what they are, it declares what they are, loud and clear. People who speak in cant don’t do it to move incognito through a hostile society. They refuse to be assimilated, and to even pretend they’re like everyone else. (If that was the goal, they’d simply talk like everyone else.) Speaking in Cant is an act of defiance, plain and simple.

Now, inserting a couple of cant terms in your speech, usually to obscure an illegal or otherwise unacceptable thing you want to say in passing, may simply be an act of self-preservation. And for that function, it’s indeed a bummer when mainstream media makes it known to a general audience. Cant has one strong defence though: it changes so quickly. It evolves faster than slang, with evolves faster than informal, which evolves faster than formal. Journalists picked up that phrase and now it’s common knowledge? No worries, we’ll make up another one on the spot. And since it’s primarily a spoken language, it varies wildly from place to place and group to group. It’s not like all the thieves in England ever used the same terms at the same time, or all the gay people in England for that matter.

Polari in particular didn’t go that way, and eventually declined for a number of reasons. Mostly because society moved on, and in gay communities the need for defiance was gradually replaced by a yearning for acceptance. There’s no right or wrong here: two roads diverged in a wood, and they both lead to claiming your dignity and freedom.

…I got more to say but this is way too long. So, bullet points.

  • Gay Cants (it’s not just Polari) function exactly as Thieves’ Cants when there’s a gay subculture, part of the underworld. So basically, when homosexuality is criminalised and/or completely unacceptable, socially. And there’s usually a back and forth between the two groups – though the criminal underworld can be just as homophobic as everyone else, so normally they don’t fully merge.
  • If things aren’t so intense though, you often have a gay slang instead, with useful terms and phrases, but not a whole language. (That’s a general observation, since it’s tricky to differentiate between cant and slang.)
  • Polari has also been the cant of carnies. The back and forth thing was in effect.
  • Kaliarda is the Greek gay cant, its first dictionary came out in 1971 (in the middle of a military dictatorship, which really didn’t sit well with the authorities, lol), you can read about it here.
  • Drug slang is a good example of “using slang terms to obfuscate” Vs “speaking in cant as an identifier”. The first is for, say, college kids, not necessarily rich and privileged but not outcasts by any means, who would rather not shout for all the world to hear “MAY I HAVE SOME MDMA PLEASE” – so they talk about buying molly. The second is for drug users who go in and out of jail, and have no reliable way to make a living or any prospect for the future, and all their friends are users, and that’s their community – so their speech is unintelligible to outsiders, but it identifies them as junkies, peers among peers.
  • Drug slang is also a good example for rapidly evolving terms. Nearly all informal terms for drugs started as slang terms known only to a few, and slowly went into mainstream, via “respectable” users and/or the media. When they become common knowledge, a new obscure term will pop up, and so on and so forth. (For all I know, “molly” may already be obsolete in that sense, I’m hardly an expert in English drug slang, I’m just grateful for the Urban Dictionary. :P)
  • The vast majority of early Thieves’ Cant dictionaries in English were from the point of view of respectable rich people regarding disreputable poor people in fear, loathing, and sordid fascination. Same goes for the older dictionaries of French Argot, including those written by cops. (And when I say cops, I mean Vidocq.) But hey, that’s a feature of Rogue Literature in general.
  • I’m shutting up now.

[originally posted by Rogue on tumblr]


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