Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Bona Drag - A Language Lesson

Anyone who has read A Clockwork Orange should understand the subculture parlance known as Polari. In the novel, Alex and his droogs (friends) speak a slang language called Nadsat comprised of Russian colloquialisms, Cockney, rhyming and Biblical slang. The term Nadsat is an anglicized version of the Russian word for 13 and the common term for being a teenager (надцать - nadtsat). The Nadsat equivalent to a word like jawn or cool, for example, might be the Russian derivative horrorshow (khorsho). Apology more simply becomes appy polly loggy.

Polari (also Palare) is a (traditionally) gay "cant" slang (meaning particular to a group), which has almost died out, with origins back to the 19th, if not the 16th century. It was more common in the 1960's when gays had more need of private slang. Polari, like Nadsat, was never clearly defined: an ever-changing collection of the vernacular from various sources including Italian, English (backwards slang, rhyming slang), circus slang, canal-speak, Yiddish and Gypsy languages. In London, there was a West End dialect, based on theater-speak, which was posher than the East End dialect based on canal/boat-speak. Americans will find the custom of slang less accessible than their British cohorts, not being prone to alternate language, instead merely fitting slang and colloquialisms into the language itself.

Examples of Polari include (some will be familiar) ajax, meaning nearby (adjacent); bona, meaning good; butch, meaning a masculine lesbian (which of course is still extant); dizzy, meaning scatterbrained; drag, self-explanatory; ecaf, backward slang for face (also eek); orbs are eyes; polari is face; riah is hair (back slang); trade is sex; troll is to walkabout, possibly hustling. Polari is today considered an endangered language.

Polari plays a major role in Morrissey's 2nd album Bona Drag, the title itself a Polari term for "nice outfit." Within the song "Piccadilly Polare"  he sings, "So bona to vada, oh you, your lovely eek and your lovely riah" ("So good to see you, your lovely face and your lovely hair").

Peter Gilliver, associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, states that the reference to the verb "troll" (to take a walk) can be found in a 14th-century text (although Polari gave us the derived noun 'trollette'). The ubiquitous 'bona' (good, attractive) was absorbed into English as long ago as Shakespeare's Henry IV Part II , where it appears as 'bona roba' (a wench, apparently, one wearing a lovely dress)."What people are doing with Polari is less about inventing new words and more about reviving ones that have fallen out of fashion," says Gilliver.

The OED 's entry for 'rozzer' (a policeman or detective) cites this quote from a book dated 1893: 'If the rozzers was to see him in bona clobber they'd take him for a gun.' Meaning: if the cops see him dressed like that, they'll know he's a thief.

We don't often speak of rock music as a harbinger of learning and yet from Morrissey to Joni to Kate Bush, I have learned more from music than nearly any other source.


     "What's it going to be then, eh?"
      It was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip, dark, chill winter bastard, though dry.

                 -Anthony Burgess - A Clockwork Orange