Dear Reader, would you be my Valentine?
This past week many celebrated St. Valentine’s Day, which undoubtedly involved countless letters, chocolates, and other tokens of affection. As I considered what to write about this week and pondered how I might incorporate that into a nice Valentine’s Day-inspired post I remembered another way people often express their devotion: through the presentation of flowers.
I have always been fascinated by the significance we as humans embed within arbitrary symbols, like flowers. This manifested in Victorian England in what became known as the language of flowers. Each individual flower had its own specific meaning, and the specific color added additional depth and specificity of meaning. For example, the perennially-popular rose (to follow our connection to Valentine’s Day) is representative of love, broadly defined. Only the red rose means romantic love, and if we add an additional layer of symbolism, a red rose without thorns signifies love at first sight. Roses of other colors, however, mean something different altogether; crimson signifies mourning, coral signifies desire, and yellow signifies friendship.
Here are some examples of other flowers and their attributed meanings: a tulip, regardless of color, signifies a “perfect lover,” and a specifically variegated tulip (meaning of two colors) indicates that this perfect lover has beautiful eyes; blue violets signify faithfulness to a loved one. It should be noted, however, that not all flowers have tender-hearted meanings. A hypothetical example comes from Romie Stott’s article on Atlas Obscura states, “[If an admirer] sent you a mix of geraniums to ask whether they can expect to see you at the next dance. If you have any striped carnations blooming in your conservatory, you can send them to the enquirer to say, “afraid not.”” The yellow carnation is even more forceful than the striped, signifying outright rejection, which if paired with basil would declare, “I reject you, and I hate you.” Seems rather like something Elizabeth Bennett might have sent to William Darcy early on in their relationship, no? Without a doubt, depending on a bouquet’s composition, the spectrum of meanings possible is expansive.
The Language of Flowers (also called floriography), according to Stott, originated in an eighteenth century letter from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (then married to the English ambassador to Turkey, and the same woman who advocated for smallpox inoculation in the early eighteenth century) in which she described the secretive language of Turkish harem women called selam (“hello”). Lady Montagu wrote that these women would use flowers to communicate under the noses of their guards. Lady Montagu misrepresented this form of communication, and afterwards some argued whether she had simply misunderstood or romanticized a Turkish rhyming game. Nevertheless, the floriographic fad persisted and grew.
Though misconstrued by Lady Montagu, the concept of a secretive language used to speak freely under the eyes and ears of one’s oppressors is a fascinating one to me, and it relates directly to another secret language used among Britain’s LGBTQ+ community during the twentieth century. Polari originated around 1900 as a means of allowing the U.K.’s gay community to speak with one another freely while sounding as though they spoke nonsense to the cis-gendered, heteronormative masses. Polari was spoken primarily between 1900 and the 1970s at which point it fell out of use. Its mortality was tied in equal parts to the passage of a 1967 law which decriminalized homosexuality, and its appropriation in British popular culture shortly beforehand.
Polari is a form of cant slang with a linguistic base in Parlyaree, an earlier form of the language which originated around the Mediterranean and in Italy where it was traditionally associated with prostitutes, beggars, and travelers. After it arrived in the U.K. in the twentieth century, gay men and female impersonators adopted it, and as they added additional linguistic elements to it (slang terms from French, Cockney slang, Yiddish, and backslang [pronunciation of a word as if it were spelled backwards] among them), Polari came into full bloom. As an example of a Polari phrase, a gay man might spy a handsome, albeit short, man across the way and say to a friend, “Vada the dolly dish, shame about his bijou lallies,” which means “Look at the attractive man, shame about his short legs.” It is easy to see how someone unaccustomed to the language would have no way of comprehending it, thus protecting the speaker.
Polari’s fall from favor began around 1960 for several reasons, among which was a new radio comedy show called Round the Horne which embedded a simplified version of Polari into its scripts. For some, this spoiled the secrecy of the language. This, in conjunction with the 1967 decriminalization of homosexuality in the U.K., removed the necessity for Polari and it fell into disuse. While it was in use, however, it provided a covert way for knowledgeable gay men to find one another and create a sense of community in the shadows. LGBTQ+ history is rife with such means of community building, and although that history is rooted in oppression, I think that Polari, much like the Language of Flowers, is something to be celebrated among LGBTQ+ individuals on a holiday so rooted in love, both romantic and communal.