The Punch and Judy show has its roots in the sixteenth-century Italian commedia dell’arte. The figure of Punch derives from the Neapolitan stock character of Pulcinella. The Punch & Judy tavern at no. 40 The Market, Covent Garden Piazza, was built in 1787. It was here that Samuel Pepys recorded the first known English performance of such a show (diary entry for 9 May 1662) by the Italian puppet showman ’Signor Bologna’ (real name: Pietro Gimonde).
Punch and Judy shows were traditionally performed by itinerant Italian showmen. They introduced the ‘secret’ lexicon of Polari (also: Parlaree, Parlyaree, or Parlary, from the Italian ‘parlare’) which is a mixture of Mediterranean Lingua Franca, Romani, Cockney rhyming slang, and Yiddish words. An influx of Italian immigrants in the 1840s brought much of its Romance-based lexicon. Polari developed as a theatrical jargon which also functioned for the secret communication of outcast groups. By the 1960s, Polari existed largely as a language of the homosexual community, forced to hide their identity for fear of being arrested. At present, traces of Polari are part of London slang (words such as ponce, scarper, bevvy, carsey, naff, and others).