Gayle: South Africa’s secret gay language


Gayle, a secret gay language, flourished during South Africa’s apartheid-era. The language lingers on today in SA slang, used by gay and straight people alike.

It started out as “moffietaal” back in the coloured gay community in the fifties and sixties. The secret lexicon was not widely known, but it did spread, moving up from the gay coloured communities in Cape Town into the white gay communities across the country.

The language eventually morphed into what we now know as Gayle.

Just like Britain’s Polari (a gay pseudo-language that sprung up somewhere between the 16th and 19th centuries), Gayle was designed to be understood by a few, and contains many phrases and words that could be used to warn of danger.

This was an asset to the gay community in the late 20th Century as apartheid police regularly targeted homosexuals and transgender individuals.

The language during the apartheid era was used mainly to allow the LGBTQI+ community to communicate openly without others understanding what was being said. It was also used to secretly convey activities within the community.

A great number of the words used are women’s names – a trait it shares with Britain’s Polari. In fact, there are a few words that these two languages share, such as “varda”, which means “to see”, and the ever popular “zhoosh”, meaning “stylish” or “to make stylish”.

The word “Beaulah” is recognised in mainstream SA slang to mean “beautiful” and is directly borrowed from Gayle.

Gayle is an ever-evolving language that adds vibrancy of the queer community

Just like its British counterpart, Gayle didn’t just exist to announce events or safeguard the community. It was also a source of entertainment and fun, as those who spoke Gayle would often speak the language in mixed company, knowing that they would not be understood.

Gayle, however, is not the only secret South African gay language. Isingqumo, which is based on the Nguni lexicon, was used by black men in same-sex relationships. It is a little younger than Gayle, coming to prominence in the 1980s.

Linguist Ken Cage published a Gayle dictionary in 2003, however he met with controversy for not including pioneers of the language. This is still one of the very few Gayle references available.

Gayle is an ever-evolving language still used to some degree to this day. It adds to the vibrancy of the queer community, and thanks to those who continue to use it, it has remained alive.

It is an integral part of South African gay culture; long may every handbag and lettie continue to open their Baxter Theatre and use Gayle.

Brush up on some of your Gayle:

  • Ada – buttocks
  • Amanda – amazing
  • Baxter Theatre – mouth
  • Barbara – heterosexual man
  • Cha cha palace – disco/club
  • Fina – astounded/surprised
  • Gilda – guilty
  • Great Dane – large penis
  • Handbag – guy
  • Harriet/Wella – hairdo
  • Hilda – ugly
  • Isadora – dance
  • KFC – sex
  • Lettie – lesbian
  • Leonora – liar
  • Mildred – crazy person
  • Priscilla – police
  • Reeva – revolting
  • Selma – oral sex

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