The language of the fairground community: secrets of Parlyaree

Written by Hesther Farge, master's student, Department of English, University of Sheffield, during a work placement at the National Fairground and Circus Archive.

19th century pic of a horse and carriage
Fairground family and living wagon c.1890

(pəlˈjɑːri, pɑːrl-)

Polari; a distinctive English argot in use since at least the 18th century among groups of theatrical and circus performers and in certain homosexual communities, derived largely from Italian, directly or through Lingua Franca. 
Collins Dictionary

Parlyaree or Polari, is a language largely used in the popular entertainment sector by actors and the fairground and circus communities among others.

These groups share many commonalities, one being their nomadic lifestyle. However, despite the spread of Parlyaree, it remains a relatively secret language that flouts standard English, with its adaptable vocabulary and non-standard grammar, hence it is often referred to as an ‘anti-language’.

Parlyaree boomed in the nineteenth century, coinciding with the rise in travelling performances, fairs and music halls, all of which exemplify the Victorian period as a time synonymous with the pursuit of mass entertainment.

While some consider the nineteenth century as the time when Parlyaree reached its ‘linguistic zenith’, this blog challenges this conception, demonstrating how Parlyaree continues to thrive among the contemporary British fair community.

The origins of Parlyaree: Elizabethan Canting

Parlyaree’s origins stretch far back into the Elizabethan period. Parlyaree derives from its predecessor; Cant, a secret, the non-standard language used by marginal groups.

A distinction ought to be made between slang and Cant, with the former used to ‘appear familiar with life, gaiety, town-humour, and with the transient nicknames and street jokes of the day’.

Cant, on the other hand, is a secret language used among groups such as beggars, criminals and thieves. 

Cant derives from ‘Canto’, meaning ‘to sing’ in Latin, hence the languages associations with beggars, who were known to speak in a sing-song manner.

One of the earliest literary examples of Cant is found in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, with ‘bona roba’, meaning ‘good/ pleasant dress’ a term that became transferred to the later Parlyaree/Polari.

Bona equally has links to the phrase ‘good prostitute’, highlighting the relationship between the secret language with those who live on the periphery of mainstream society. 

Cant consists of a combination of neologisms or newly created words, blended English words and languages such as Romany and Italian, all of which shape the later spoken, Fairground Parlyaree.

Cant can be regarded as a perpetually adaptable language, notable in its successors, Parlyaree (Fairground Cant) and Polari (a form of Cant spoken amongst British homosexuals until the legalisation of homosexuality in 1968).

Both forms of Cant evolve from the necessity for self-protection. Cant and its successors enable its users to opt for a language that is more representative of their social group, especially those who have been victims of prejudice, hence why those who speak Cant, as well as its later variations tend to be those who have encountered prejudice.

Parlyaree evolved among the travelling fair community as a form of protection from wider society, who tended to associate the perceived vulgarity of entertainment with the travelling showman/woman trade.

Therefore, those who speak the variations of Cant are aware of the importance of the language sustaining a flexible and adaptive vocabulary due to problems that arise when words become mainstream, negating the level of group identification and commercial advantages of a secret language.  

While the history of Cant is a wide and fascinating topic, this blog is primarily concerned with the nineteenth-century strand of Fairground Parlyaree. 

Parlyaree is a combination of languages including Romany, Yiddish and Italian to name a few, but it is important to recognise it as a language in its own right, exemplified by those in the Irish travelling community who refer to their secret language as Shelta/Gammon, and Gypsies who refer to their language as Romany or Palva.

Parlyaree is popular among the travelling entertainment sector, demonstrating how the Fairground community use Parlyaree as a marker of their specific occupational status.

Victorian folly: Parlyaree and pleasure

With the rise of industrialisation, the pursuit of pleasure became lucrative for the national economy. Victorian Brits were amongst the first to obtain bank holidays, statutory holidays and the weekend off, all of which enabled them more time to pursue pleasure.

Queen Victoria herself was known for her enthusiasm towards leisure activities. As Matthew Sweet states in ‘Sex, Drugs and Music Hall’:

"The lives of Victorians were anything but staid and dull, Indeed, it’s hard to think of a public pleasure with which they did not engage with intense, breathless enthusiasm".

Contrary to depictions of the stifling Victorian drawing-room, the outside became a hotspot for pleasure seekers, with the construction of the British railway enabling Brits to travel to the seaside and the Fairground. Sweet continues:

“They [Victorians] flocked to spectacular stage shows featuring high-tech special effects: burning buildings licked by real flames, collapsing bridges, thunderous avalanches, simulated waterfalls and Derby races featuring real horses.

"They relished death-defying acrobatic displays and were thrilled when performers such as Blondin, who had gained fame by crossing the Niagara Falls on a tightrope, entertained them by pushing a lion in a wheelbarrow across a rope suspended a hundred feet in the air, then repeating the trick in a suit of armour.

"They adored moving pictures – whether they were supplied by the zoopraxiscope, the choreutoscope, the panorama, or the cinematograph” 

Ibid 7., Matthew Sweet, ‘Sex, Drugs and Music Hall’, ‘Sensation Seekers’.

Painting of a fairground scene
Fairground Scene c.1930

The Fairground is the ancestral home to many of these leisure activities, including moving pictures, with many flocking to the fair to see this invention for the first time.

The 19th-century travelling funfair flourished with the development of mechanical attractions and sideshows. In 1868, agricultural engineer, Frederick Savage, devised a method of driving rides by steam.

His invention helped to cement the fairground industry in England, influencing its international imitators. The travelling fun fair took advantage of the lucrative opportunities on offer to its attendees, with food vendors becoming a venture that amplified the array of pleasures to be found at the fair.

However, this carnival ethos was not met with enthusiasm by all. Although there was a boom in the entertainment sector during the Victorian period, showmen/women, actors and circus performers often suffered from stigmatisation due to the perceived instability and associated vulgarity of such careers.

There was a level of Puritan resistance amongst those who felt that the industry of pleasure encouraged the public to neglect their religiosity.

Parlyaree: An occupational trademark

Gypsies were increasingly regarded as both a dangerous and non-conforming class in the nineteenth century.

Rural police forces sought to remove Gypsy tents and waggons from the countryside, with the rise of the enclosure movement leading to greater urban migration among travellers in the late nineteenth century.

The Turnpike Roads Act of 1822 and Highways Act of 1835 reduced the number of stopping places among travellers, restricting the ease of free movement.

Section 95 of the 1891 Act gave local inspectors the right to inspect tents, vans and sheds used for living in the concern for sanitation, increasing the surveillance among travellers.

To distinguish themselves from Gypsies, fairground showmen/women identified as a cultural group united in their profession, leading to the establishment of The Showman’s Guild of Great Britain in 1889, that sought to provide workers with occupational and geographical rights, hoping to mark themselves as a complex professional network.

The Showmen’s Guild additionally provided the legal right to set up and handle equipment safely, with showman Mr Thurston stating:

"Our record on safety is second to none. If there’s an accident on the fairground it always makes headline news because it’s very rare. It’s a very safe industry to work in."

As Emma Kasprzak writes: 

"A good site is crucial to a showman – they must be close to areas like town centres where people congregate to ensure high footfall with space for the caravans many showmen stay in when they are on the road."

Old poster of the Showmens Guild

The use of Parlyaree can then be regarded as not only a marker of group identity among showmen/women but as advantageous in a commercial scenario.

For example, much of the vocabulary of Parlyaree includes monetary terms due to the trading aspect of the travelling entertainment sector.

Trading and showmen/women’s lives intersect, largely due to the historic overlap between city markets and the funfair, as demonstrated by several British and Irish contemporary fairs which have retained their trading names such as Appleby Horse Fair, Nottingham Goose Fair and Stratford-upon-Avon Mop.

Speaking Parlyaree enables one to use and understand trading terms. Linguist expert, Paul Baker notes the historic relationship between traders, such as costermongers, cheapjacks and pedlars and showmen/women at the Victorian fair, a relationship that continues today due to the caterers and stalls that can be found at the contemporary fairground.

As previously stated, the vocabulary of Parlyaree is flexible, largely due to traveling showmen/women continuously relocating to different regions, enabling for the Parlyaree lexis to be shared across Britain, but for its words to be spoken with a variety of accents, in turn altering the terms, as well as terms varying in frequency depending on the region.

However, what remains evident is that the interplay between the jargon used by travelling showmen/women and market traders is an unsurprising connection considering travel being focal to both groups, emphasising how language can be adopted as a form of self-identification, as well as for a socio-economic objective.

The fairground subculture

Two generations of the Smith fairground family. From left to right Judy, John and John Jnr.  Smith in front of their games stall c.1990s. Harry Russell Collection
Two generations of the Smith fairground family. From left to right Judy, John and John Jnr. Smith in front of their games stall c.1990s. Harry Russell Collection

Fairground Parlyaree is often referred to by showmen/women as ‘backslang’. The failure to understand the language cements one’s status as a ‘flatty’.

The term ‘flatty’ is synonymous with outsiders of the Fairground community and remains widely used.

‘Flattie/flatty’ is recorded in Eric Patridge’s ‘A Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English’, in which it is described as ‘A member of the audience’ in relation to Circus workers (Seago, 1933) and as ‘an outsider’ among showmen and market traders in the late nineteenth century. 

If one is a flatty, then they are considered an outsider to the travelling fair subculture. A subculture refers to behaviours shared by a group of people who identify as part of that group and tends to deviate from the larger, enclosing mainstream culture.

Rictor Norton outlines the characteristics that form a subculture, including elements such as: 

"A network of communication between members which is not generally recognised by a larger society’, ‘a self-protective community of shared sympathy for being ostracised by society’ and most significantly, ‘a specialised vocabulary or slang, used to reinforce a sense of membership in the group or to establish contact secretly".

The notion of language as a tool for self-identification for travelling fair people is an important aspect of Parlyaree.

While in the past Parlyaree tended to be adopted as a covert method of avoiding marginalisation, more recently, it is adopted as a symbol of pride and collective identification.

As the travelling entertainment occupations tend to be intergenerational, Parlyaree enables younger showmen/women to continue to use Parlyaree terms to preserve their identification with the subculture, emphasising the importance of generational links as a fundamental factor as to how Parlyaree continues to be spoken today.

One of the chief advantages of Parlyaree is its concise nature, enabling speakers to insert the words in a conversation without the outsider being aware of this.

In her thesis, ‘Fun without vulgarity: community, women and language in showland society, from 1890 to the present day’, Professor Vanessa Toulmin interviewed over 100 showmen/women and recorded their memories.

Toulmin’s findings emphasise how two words may mean as much as a sentence in standard English, with the heavily condensed terminology enabling for a message to be received quickly and efficiently.

Toulmin’s findings demonstrate showmen/women’s continued use of Parlyaree as a form of Cant on top of the vernacular of the country, which in her study is English. 

Those interviewed by Toulmin were born into the Fairground profession, with Parlyaree acquired from a young age.

Until 1991, the prerequisite for those to obtain the right to work as a showman/women under The Showman’s Guild of Great Britain was that they must descend from a travelling fair family.

While this is no longer a condition, this prerequisite has formally added to the generational links of workers, enabling for Parlyaree to be passed down to the younger generation, rather than across more mainstream occupations.

Parlyaree is paradoxically an enduring but adaptive language, meaning that aspects of the language continue to thrive, while older terms are replaced to reflect the context.

For example, the innovations in the fair and circus sector lead to new terms being coined to refer to more recent rides and technologies, altering the jargon spoken by those working at the travelling fair.

Equally, monetary terms will continue to be replaced to reflect the currency of the context, akin to standard dominant languages.

The bridge between Italy and Parlyaree

The Italian roots of the Parlyaree vocabulary coincide with the nineteenth-century rise of Italian migration to the UK due to the socio-economic instability of the country caused by the Napoleonic wars.

Many Italians hoped to secure a living by working in the Victorian entertainment sector. In Parley and me: a compendium of fairground speech, Mícheál Ó hAodha writes:

‘Italian showpeople who had worked as organ grinders and pedlars were intimately involved in the development of spectacles such as Punch and Judy’. 

Although considered a staple of British entertainment, the roots of the classic duo Punch and Judy are found in the commedia dell’arte of 16th century Italy.

The newly fashionable seaside piers became a popular site for the puppet show. Victorian seaside resorts became the fastest growing towns in Britain in the latter part of the century, becoming the home of Punch and Judy.

Punch and Judy shows attracted a huge British audience, with many Italian words finding their way into the Parlyaree lexis, to then be used among English fair workers.

Examples of Parlyaree terms include ‘bona’ meaning ‘good’ (buono in Italian) and ‘vada’ meaning ‘to see’ (vedere in Italian).

Baker includes an excerpt from Mayhew’s 1851 study of London, in which he inserts a study of Punch’s speech as translated by an Italian street performer,

"How are you getting on?’ I might say to another Punch-man. ‘Ultra cativa’, he’d say. If I was doing a little, I’d say ‘Bonar.’ Let us have a ‘shant a bivare’- pot o’ beer… ‘Ultray cativa slum’- not a good call. ‘Tambora’- drum, that’s Italian. ‘Pipares’- pipes. ‘Questra homa a vardering the slum scarpar it, Orderly’- there’s someone a looking at the slum. Be off quickly. ‘Fiela’ is a child; ‘Homa’ is man; ‘Dona’, a female, ‘Charfering-homa’- talking man, policeman."

Phrases as ‘bona/bonar’ and ‘vada’ have become more ‘mainstream’ terms, emphasising the assimilation of some Parlyaree terms.

However, much of the Parlyaree lexis used at the fair today continues, with many terms being unrecognisable to outsiders or those who do not work closely to showmen/women, unlike market vendors or traders.

Parlyaree terms that are still common among the fairground circle as suggested by Toulmin’s interviews with contemporary showmen/women include ‘burster’ as a common expression to denote that business was profitable, ‘chavvy’, a term extensively used on the fairground to denote a child and sometimes a person, an ‘Jigger’, a widely used word for door. 

Notably, in more recent studies of showmen/women speech, the Parlyaree found in Mayhew’s study of the Victorian Punch and Judy language continues to be spoken today.

Phrases such as ‘munjare’ for food holds the same meaning in the updated lexis. Other terms such as ‘bivare’ for drink have been updated to ‘bev/bevy/bevvied’, demonstrating the linguistic parallels between periods, with terms enduring but equally adapting over time.

There’s no business like show business

Fairgoers flocking into a sideshow in the 1940s
Fairgoers flocking into a sideshow in the 1940s

In 1881, Thomas Frost published Circus life: circus celebrities. Frost concludes that ‘Circus men are much addicted to the use of slang’.

Frost anticipates the inevitable limitations of his observations of circus life, writing:

"Not even a circus man, could give a complete vocabulary of circus slang, which, like that of other slang-speaking classes, is constantly receiving additions, while words and phrases which have been long in use often become obsolete, and fall into disuse".

This parallels the Parlyaree of the travelling fair, as mentioned, the lexis is open and updated both on a protective level in order to avoid phrases becoming ‘mainstream’ and to reflect the rise in new technologies and jargon.

One phrase that is common among those who work in the circus is ‘Is Hiram Fisteman here?’. This is a Cant phrase that would be called by a man who would look outside of the booth to determine how many people were collected for a second exhibition, when he had estimated that there were enough, he would return to the upper seats, and shout the phrase, enabling both parties to gain an understanding as to when to conclude the entertainment with a song and dismiss the audience for a second performance. 

As expressed earlier, Frost emphasises the linguistic contrasts that should be made between ‘slang words and phrases and the technical terms used in the profession, and also between the forms of expression peculiar to circus men and those which they use in common with members of the theatrical and musical professions’. In the more recently studied fairground Parlyaree recorded by Toulmin, there are a few words that parallel those observed by Frost in his study of the language of the late Victorian circus.

These include ‘The verb ‘to fake,’ means, in the thieves’ vocabulary, to steal; but circus men use it in a different sense, ‘faked up’ meaning ‘fixed,’ while ‘fakements’ is specific to circus apparatus and properties, and generally to moveables of any kind’.

Toulmin also notes that this is a common expression spoken among showmen/women, again, to fake a person is to take advantage rather than relating to stealing. Another term noted by both Frost and Toulmin is ‘Letty’, which is used both as a noun and a verb, meaning to lodge, mirroring Toulmin’s findings in which ‘Letty’ is an abode. 

However, due to much of the jargon of the travelling entertainment sector relating to occupational terms, there are many differences between the circus terms found by Frost and those that are specific to the fairground, with words today such as, ‘round un’ (fairground stall), ‘sanddancer’ (the proprietor of playground equipment on parks or on the seafront) and slip (meaning a fairground slide). 

Ultimately, this blog highlights that Parlyaree is more than a coded language. Parlyaree is symbolic of the travelling fair as a way of life, with its members opting to use Parlyaree as a marker of pride and their socio-cultural connection to the showman/woman industry that they have been born into.

Parlyaree builds bridges between fairground families, as well as those who work closely to showmen/women, emphasising Parlyaree as a language of both dignity and commerce. 

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