Broadly have been looking at what they think is the dead language of Polari. Well, comatose, anyway.
Although largely died out, some Polari is still spoken in the UK to this day. “Blowjob” is a case in point: Some speculate that the Polari word was derived from American slang introduced in Britain following the Second World War. Other terms such as “naff” (bad), “bevvy” (drink), and “camp” (effeminate) continue to be used colloquially. Polari is the language you didn’t even know you were using.
The history of Polari is murky, as Jo Stanley and Paul Baker explain in their book Hello Sailor!: The Hidden History of Gay Life At Sea. They trace Polari’s origins back to Thieves’ Cant, a secret language used by thieves. Gay men in London pubs and taverns would use Cant to socialize and make sexual contacts. In fact, “trade” (meaning “sexual partner” in both Cant and Polari) is still used by many gay men today to mean the same thing. As the years went on, Polari picked up words—usually Italian in origin—from circus and travelling communities, prostitution rings, sailors, beggars, and the theatre world, where the language was predominantly used for most of the early 20th century. Polari proved popular amongst choir boys, dancers, and actors, many of whom were gay.
More of a “cryptolect” (a form of slang or argot used exclusively avoid certain detection or judgement from others) than a fully formed language, gay men would drop Polari terms into conversation: If the listener responded with Polari in turn, you could identify each other’s sexual orientation surreptitiously.