Reading Resolution: “Fabulosa!: The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language” by Paul Baker

10. A book written in Europe: Fabulosa!: The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language by Paul Baker

List Progress: 7/30

Queer history has its own unique stories from all over the world. Queer people exist everywhere and they have throughout history, and different communities have developed in conversation with and in response to mainstream cultures. Britain in particular has an intriguing angle with Polari, a coded language that gay men in the 1950’s developed to be able to talk about their lives and loves while avoiding prosecution. Paul Baker is one of the most prominent academics to study Polari, and the entire story of the language is collected in his popular history book Fabulosa!. He traces it from early influences, through its heyday, into its rejection by the queer liberation movement, and finally to the modern rediscovery and appreciation of the 2000’s onward. The topic is a particularly niche interest, appealing mostly to fans of queer history or linguistic enthusiasts, but for those groups, this is a fun ride.

Fabulosa!: The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language sets out to give the full breadth of Polari’s history, along with a bit of Baker’s own personal journey with Polari. He was born decades too late to be a “native” speaker, but has spent most of his professional life studying it and interviewing the original speakers, dwindling as their numbers may be. One of the more intriguing aspects is how Baker has to acknowledge his own influence by the final chapters of the book. Many of his earlier works, like 2002’s Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang, have been major resources for the contemporary re-discoverers, influencing groups such as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and the writers of the Polari Bible. Linguists and academics are generally supposed to have a level of remove from the subjects of their study, but Polari exists in such small pockets of the world, and was always such an underground culture, that Baker cannot help but become one of the preeminent figures.

The book ends up being a nice blend of linguistics and history, with the opening being a debate about what makes something a language, as opposed to a dialect, a collection of slang, or an “anti-language”, a term for when a type of speech is formed to deliberately keep out the mainstream. Academics would have to go into Baker’s other works to find deeper analysis, but for lay people, this is a lovely, warm introduction to a chapter of British and queer history. This book is positively bona.

Would I recommend it: Yes.

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