bbc.com / “Bona to vada your dolly old eek!”

That may seem like a string of nonsense words from Dr Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat or Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange but it’s a real-life greeting gay men in the UK would say to each other in the 1950s and 60s. It means “Good to see your nice face.”

Until 1967, homosexual sex was illegal in England and Wales. To avoid imprisonment, gay men used Polari, a language that the Oxford English Dictionary says is “made up of Italianate phrases, rhyming slang and cant terms.” It had sprung up in the 1700s and 1800s as a secret language vagrants, itinerant performers, sailors and “gypsies” – many of its words, in fact, derive from the Romany people scattered across Europe.

British comedian Kenneth Williams often spoke Polari in his performances on BBC radio and TV programmes in the 1950s and 60s, some of which had up to 20 million listeners at a time, introducing the language to a much wider audience. Watch the video above to find out more.

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