Savvying the Palaver: Nadsat and Polari

Two days before his death, David Bowie’s final album, Black Star, was released. It features a sparse, and to many listeners baffling, song entitled Girl Loves Me. Even fans who were used to Bowie’s allusive lyrics found Girl Loves Me difficult to comprehend. However, it was soon revealed that the unusual language of the song was derived in part from Nadsat, and from the gay community slang Polari.

In this highly opaque song, Bowie effectively code-switches between Nadsat, Polari and contemporary British multicultural urban slang. The full lyrics are reproduced below. Bowie’s artistic decision to incorporate these three slangs helps us understand some of the shared characteristics of these modes of communication, despite their very distinct vocabularies.

Firstly, none of them are complete languages. They are effectively lexicons which graft onto English grammar in order to be comprehended. Additionally, they all emerged from British sub-cultures. And finally, at least in the case of Nadsat and Polari, they are what Halliday called anti-languages, ie modes of verbal communication intended to exclude most people from comprehension.

We’ve already discussed how Nadsat functions as an anti-language here. Alex and his droogs use Nadsat functionally to prevent listeners from full comprehension of what they are discussing, which is often criminality. Anti-languages originally emerged among criminal communities, as thieves’ cants in the Middle Ages, and this helps to explain the variegation in Nadsat, with multiple terms for things they discuss a lot, like women or money, and no terminology for other items which do not similarly need to be masked in conversation.

Polari developed for similar reasons, as the secret slang of gay sub-culture in Britain, at a time when homosexuality was illegal. Using codewords permitted gay men as an in-group to communicate about things which the general public might find offensive, or which could potentially lead to their arrest. Gay men were forced to communicate their interests and desires to one another obliquely, using opaque terminology, in order to be understood without revealing, or outing, themselves to the general public.

Paul Baker, who has led study into Polari, notes in his 2002 dictionary of Polari, Fantabulosa!, that “in the UK Polari flourished in the repressive 1950s, where the regulation of post-war sexual morality was viewed as a priority, and prosecutions against gay men reached record levels.” Polari’s heyday, coincidentally, was the 1960s, when Burgess was inventing Nadsat. By the end of that decade, Polari attained nationwide prominence on the popular radio comedy Round the Horne sketches involving the high camp characters Julian and Sandy (who even merit their own Wikipedia page), even as its original purpose as an anti-language became defunct with the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Baker notes that “by the beginning of the 1980s, Polari had all but vanished from the UK gay scene”, replaced by non-verbal modes of communicating gayness, such as dress. However, its role in gay culture has led to its cultural renaissance, both as a slang-in-use and as a cultural object, worthy of both scholarship and cultural repurposing. Baker, writing in 2002, noted the emergence of “Klub Polari” in London nightclubs, where Polari elements were blended with East London slang and Asian dialectal words to reflect the nightlife cultural mix.

And Bowie was not the first to attempt to repurpose Polari in music. In 1990, Morrissey, who describes himself as ‘humasexual’ but revealed a relationship with a man in his 2013 autobiography, released a song entitled Piccadilly Palare, about the culture of rent boys in the Piccadilly area of either London or Manchester, both of which have histories as locations of male prostitution. In the song, from the Polari-titled album Bona Drag, Morrissey quotes authentic Polari terms: “So bona to vada, oh you/ Your lovely eek and/ Your lovely riah.” However, he is ultimately dismissive, noting that “The Piccadilly Palare/ Was just silly slang/ Between me and the boys in my gang”.

‘Riah’ is backslang, hair spelt in reverse, as is ‘eek’, a truncation of ecaf, meaning face (a technique reminiscent of French verlan). In an environment of surreptitious romantic exchange, it is unsurprising to see physiological descriptors encoded in the anti-language, just as descriptors of women are encoded in Nadsat. Morrissey’s song is also revealing about Polari’s function as an anti-language: “Exchanging Palare/ You wouldn’t understand/ Good sons like you/ Never do.” The ‘good sons’ of Morrissey’s song are presumably heterosexuals with no need to mask their sexuality behind coded terminology.

Two years before he died, David Bowie issued a list of the 100 books which had most influenced him. As a cultural reading list, one could definitely do worse. Notably, only two writers are represented by two books – George Orwell (whose dystopian classic 1984 is joined by his essay collection Inside the Whale) and Anthony Burgess, whose magnum opus Earthly Powers is accompanied inevitably by A Clockwork Orange.

It is unsurprising therefore to find 1984 (itself title of another famous Bowie song) referenced in Girl Loves Me also. The Chestnut Tree Café is the bar in which Winston Smith comes to accept his fate after his torture at the hand of Big Brother.

David Bowie, Sexuality and Gender: A Rebel Who Changed the Face of ...

Through the use of Nadsat and Polari, as well  as this reference to 1984, the song’s lyrics reveal a dystopian tone, inspired by the British ‘milk bar’ café culture of the late 1950s and early 1960s which Bowie experienced as a youth,  where gay men would often frequent in order to meet each other,  and which inspired Burgess to create the Korova milk bar where A Clockwork Orange commences.

David Bowie – Girl Loves Me

Cheena so sound, so titi up this malchick, say

Party up moodge, nanti vellocet round on Tuesday

Real bad dizzy snatch making all the omies mad – Thursday

Popo blind to the polly in the hole by Friday

Where the fuck did Monday go?

I’m cold to this pig and pug show

I’m sittin’ in the chestnut tree

Who the fuck’s gonna mess with me?

Girl loves me (Hey, cheena)

Girl loves me

Girl loves me (Hey, cheena)

Girl loves me

Where the fuck did Monday go?

I’m cold to this pig and pug show

Where the fuck did Monday go?

You viddy at the cheena

Choodesny with the red rot

Libbilubbing litso-fitso

Devotchka watch her garbles

Spatchko at the rozz-shop

Split a ded from his deng deng

Viddy viddy at the cheena

Only the opening verse includes Polari. ‘Titi’, a truncation of titivate, signifies to prettify, and ‘nanti’ is Polari’s generic negative, meaning not or no. Vellocet is a drug available at the Korova in A Clockwork Orange, and likely refers to speed, or amphetamine sulphate, which was commonly used in the early 1960s in late night milk bars which did not serve alcohol. ‘Polly’, short for the Nadsat rhyming slang ‘Pretty Polly’, derives from ‘lolly’ meaning money.

Much of the remainder of the verse is contemporary British urban slang. Notably, ‘snatch’, meaning ‘pussy’ or ‘vagina’ is used here synecdochally to suggest women. Terms for women which are physiologically reductive in this way are a feature of anti-languages, and offensive terms for females are common to both Nadsat and Polari  – see e.g. the explanation for sharp here. However, the unoffensive term ‘Cheena’, Nadsat from Russian “женщина” (zhenshchina), simply meaning woman, is preferred by Bowie in his chorus.

The second verse is the densest for Nadsat. ‘Viddy’, meaning to see, is not only cognate with but phonologically similar to the Polari ‘Vada’, one of the coincidences which suggests that there might be a Polari inspiration for Nadsat. Some of the other terms are (deliberately?) misspelt from Nadsat. “Choodesny” should be “choodessny’, “Libbilubbing”, meaning making love, should be ‘lubbilubbing’, ‘Garbles’, meaning testicles, should be ‘yarbles,’ and ‘Spatchko’, meaning sleep, should be ‘spatchka.’ Perhaps Bowie’s Nadsat was rustier than his Polari.

This article ends on a speculation. Burgess was writing A Clockwork Orange at a time when gay men commonly used Polari in the kind of milk bars he depicts in the novel. Though A Clockwork Orange does not depict gay relationships of any kind, many of Burgess’s other novels do. Bowie’s other Burgess favourite, Earthly Powers, is written from the point of view of an ageing gay novelist, for example. Honey for the Bears, another novel published around the same time as A Clockwork Orange, features a couple, the Husseys, who visit Leningrad and after a series of misadventures come to realise they are actually both queer. Burgess’s other great dystopian classic, The Wanting Seed, features an overpopulated future in which a gay elite rules, and fertile heterosexuals are oppressed, and the state advertises ‘It’s Sapiens to Be Homo.’ Burgess’s Shakespeare in Nothing Like The Sun is bisexual, and his Marlowe in A Dead Man in Deptford is a kind of anachronistic modern gay man plunged into the murky espionage world of Elizabethan England.

Burgess himself had quite a camp demeanour, to the extent that his own wife once asked him if he were gay. Though he denied it, it was often assumed he was by fellow writers like Kingsley Amis. Certainly, Burgess was what might have been termed a friend and ally, associating freely with gay men, including William Burroughs in the fleshpots of Tangiers. This adds up, admittedly, to mere speculation. But perhaps Burgess had encountered Polari in the milk bars of London on his return to England from Malaya, and found the invention of a subversive slang too captivating to avoid replicating in A Clockwork Orange.

After Babel: George Steiner in retrospect

Earlier this week, the scholar George Steiner died. Along with Umberto Eco, he was among the last of the great 20th century polymaths whose indomitable intellect and gimlet eye was drawn to translation as art, craft and science.

Image result for george steinerSteiner’s text on translation, After Babel (1973) has gone through numerous reprints and three separate editions, and casts a long shadow over the still nascent discipline of Translation Studies. It long predates many other influential texts in the arena, including Eco’s belated works, Experiences in Translation (2000) and Mouse or Rat? (2003).

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