The word gam popped up the other day in reference to the late actress Betty Grable, who once insured her “million-dollar gams” for $500,000 each. Shortly afterwards I noticed a report about an ocean-going ship that was following a gam of whales. It turns out that gam has two different origins, depending on its meaning.
A gam might mean a “school of whales,” and probably derives from a Scandinavian word for “game,” emphasizing the social and sportive nature of a gathering of these sea-going mammals.
Grable’s gams, on the other hand, are rooted in Polari, a British jargon used by actors, circus-performers, and, most notably, the gay community beginning in the eighteenth century. A gam derives from the Italian gamba or “leg.” Polari has many varied linguistic sources: Italian, Romany (or Gypsy), Yiddish, cockney rhyming slang, East End canal-speak, back-formations of words, Shelta (the cant of Irish tinkers), circus slang, and theatrical argot.
Polari, sometimes palare or palyaree, which derives from Italian parlare (“talk”), was popularized on a 1960s BBC radio program that featured two screamingly camp characters, Julian and Sandy, shamelessly overplayed by Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick. One of their Polari catch-phrases was “How bona to vada your eek!”--which meant “How good to see your face!”
Other words in the Polari vocabulary, some of which are now in mainstream English, include camp (“exaggerated effeminate mannerisms”), naff (“bad”), butch (“notably masculine”), fantabulosa (“wonderful”), scarper (“run away”), bonaroo (“excellent”), barney (“fight”), drag (“clothes, especially those of the opposite sex”), and oglefakes (“eyeglasses”).
Some people say the Bard of Buffalo Bayou was raised by a gam of whales, which is where he got all his blubber. His work lends validity to this hypothesis.
The glamorously gammed Betty Grable,
Swathed in mink and in ermine and sable,
In a Cadillac car
That was fit for a star,
Lived the high life till she was unable.
Today, just like Hayworth or Gable,
Her story’s no longer a fable,
And her public now views
Her films after the news
That’s aired at eleven on cable.