Why Is ‘Chav’ Still Controversial?

BBC News, June 3, 2011

For some it has been a satisfying label to pin on Burberry check-wearing louts. But for others, it’s a nasty, coded attack on the working class.

And for some commentators the word chav is now at the heart of Britain’s obsession with class.

There has been much discussion over the origin of the term. The Romany word chavi–meaning child–was recorded in the 19th Century. Others argue it’s from “Chatham average”, a disparaging reference to the inhabitants of the Kent town.

There have always been regional labels equivalent to chav–skangers, spides, charvers, scallies and neds, respectively in Ireland, Northern Ireland, North East England, North West England and Scotland. But chav has somehow scaled regional barriers to become a national term of abuse.

Driven by websites like Chavscum and Chavtowns, and soon picked up by the mainstream media, the word has also mutated into “chavtastic”, “chavsters”, “chavette”, “chavdom”.

There are plenty of people for whom the word is harmless. Daily Telegraph blogger James Delingpole argues it’s merely an updating of “oik”.

But more left-leaning commentators have seen it as shorthand for bashing the poor. In 2008 the Fabian Society urged the BBC to put it on their list of offensive terms.

“This is middle class hatred of the white working class, pure and simple,” wrote Tom Hampsen, the society’s editorial director. He also called on the Commission for Equality and Human Rights to take this kind of class discrimination seriously.

But last week a Lib Dem peer on that very commission caused controversy by using the term on twitter: “Help. Trapped in a queue in chav-land! Woman behind me explaining latest Eastenders plot to mate, while eating largest bun I’ve ever seen,” Baroness Hussein-Ece tweeted.

Her comment appalled the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee who compared it to two of the most serious racial insults, noting that chav is seen as “acceptable class abuse by people asserting superiority over those they despise”.

Now a new book–Chavs: the Demonization of the Working Class–argues the word is a coded attack on the poor. “As inequality has widened it’s a way of people saying that the people at the bottom deserve to be there,” says Owen Jones, the book’s author.

The situation is complicated by the decline in the number of people identifying themselves as working class. A survey in March this year by research firm Britainthinks, suggested 71% of people define themselves as middle class.

“I saw the ‘working class’ tag used as a slur, equated with other class-based insults such as ‘chav’,” wrote researcher Deborah Mattinson.

A belief has grown that the aspirational “decent” working class has become middle class, Jones argues. According to this narrative, what is left behind is a “feckless rump” housed on estates, living off benefits or working in low status jobs at supermarkets, hairdressers or fast food outlets.

It’s likely that chav originates in the Romany word “chavi”, recorded from the middle of the 19th Century.

In the 20th Century it was prominent in Kent, used among Chatham builders in the same way as mate. “Chatham average” is probably a later rationalisation.

Like many insults it’s short and punchy. Its brevity lends itself easily to spin-offs, such as “‘chavtastic”, “chavsters”, “chavette”, “chavdom”.

This century there is a new lexicon of tribal vocabulary that draws on “us and them” and the idea of a “peasant” underclass.

There is a long list of similar regional examples–skangers, spides, charvers, and neds, for the uneducated, lower-class, and vulgarly-dressed.

For a while it seemed like it might lose its sting. Some fashion houses were even rumoured to be contemplating using the term for a new line.

But the bite behind the caricature has persisted–the label is being used as a “catch-all” for people of a particular social class.

That view has been reinforced by “grotesque” sketches about chavs written by public school educated comedians like David Walliams and Matt Lucas, Jones says. A 2006 survey by YouGov suggested 70% of TV industry professionals believed that Vicky Pollard was an accurate reflection of white working class youth.

But Delingpole rejects Jones’s analysis. “The left loves this constituency of the deserving poor, honest people who would dearly love to get a job if the system would only allow them to.”

Chav for Delingpole is both a term of abuse for an “underclass” who won’t work and also a wider term similar to how “yob” was used in the ’70s. “It’s a young person in their teens or 20s. It covers a multitude of characteristics. It’s not even exclusively used about white people.”

For the tabloids, the word is associated with loud or aggressive behaviour. Lottery winner Michael Carroll, the footballer Wayne Rooney, ex-glamour model Jordan, and Cheryl Cole have all been celebrated as “chav royalty”. In 2005 Cole told Marie Claire: “I’m proud to be a chav if by that you mean working class made good.”

Everyone’s missing the point, argues Labour MP Stephen Pound. The term chav just shows how jealous middle Britain is about working class people having fun.

“Chav is an utterly misunderstood term. It is used in envy by the lily livered, privileged, pale, besuited bank clerk who sees people dressed up to the nines and going to the West End.” It’s no different, he argues to the Teddy Boys or Mods, youth style movements about asserting individual identity and confidence.

Mocking chavs’ perceived bad taste and excess has become a popular sport.

In 2006 the Sun reported that Prince William and his fellow officers at Sandhurst dressed in chav fancy dress to celebrate finishing their first term. According to the paper, the future king “donned a loose-fitting top and bling jewellery then added an angled baseball cap and glare to complete his menacing lookalike of Lotto lout Michael Carroll”.

Whatever the complicated arguments over class, there is always a suspicion for some that the words represents contempt for the “other”.

“What makes Britain so hard to love is this term ‘good taste’. When what they mean is ‘my taste’,” notes Pound.

Delingpole says chav is an acceptable word in polite society. “Of course you shouldn’t worry about using it. All that happens when you put a word on the prohibited list is that another equally offensive one comes in to fill the gap.”

Jones cannot even accept the word as a demarcator of taste. “If you mean bling then say bling,” he says. The word chav “is deeply offensive” and should no longer be permitted as a smokescreen for class hatred. Jones disapproves of the word “toff”, but asserts it is far less wounding as it mocks the powerful rather than the poor.

It’s common practice these days to try to reclaim offensive terms, “queer” and “slut” being notable examples. But this is not the way to deal with the word chav, Jones says.

Ten years after it started filtering into the national consciousness, this term continues to be seen through the prism of Britain’s complex class attitudes.

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  • Anonymous

    I agree that derision is usually tolerated as long as it is directed at other whites. However, the term ‘chav’ is used to describe the white underclass not the respectable working class people. There is a big difference between the two groups. Chavs are generally a product of decadent liberal marxist policies where knowledge of their culture is lost, soft punishments for bad behaviour and mass MTV propaganda.

  • sbuffalonative

    For the most part, I believe name-calling generally has little effect on whites. They may be called any sort of name but regardless, whites simply carry on.

    While white slurs may be boorish and rude, they don’t seem to have the same negative effect or impede achievements.

    I hope white people don’t jump on the ‘victim’ bandwagon. It will only strengthen ‘hate speech’ laws and make it easier to crack down on ‘hate speech’.

  • Milton

    Why are you so surprised?

    To see how this works you don’t have to leave the good old USA.

  • Antidote

    This article is very dishonest, because the controversy over the term “chav” has very little to do with bashing the working class or in fact with class distinctions in general in Great Britain. No, the word is frowned upon (and on its way to the taboo list) because it has something to do with race.

    Chav is more or less the same as the term we use in the USA, “wigger” or “whigger”. Derived from “White *igger”. Look closely at the chavs: cornrows, sideways baseball hats, bling, oversized medallions, grills, vulgarly flashing cash, loud and ostentatious. Why, are they emulating urban elements? You betcha!

  • HH

    You can insult groups anywhere so long as they are White…and not homosexual, of course!

  • John Bell in England

    I was born just downriver from Chatham – quite a long time ago – and I’d never heard the word “chav” used anywhere in any context until maybe five years ago, and even then I didn’t know what it meant.

    The word may be peculiar to Britain, but the phenomen certainly isn’t; the unskilled, and often unemployed, white underclass. What are they called in the States, rednecks? trailer trash?

    These are the people who really do suffer from immigrant competition for jobs and housing, who find themselves shoved to the back of the queue by anti-white discrimination, whose children suffer from schools overcrowded with those who do not speak English – and yet, so frustratingly, they are almost completely inert politically.

  • Anonymous

    I’m certainly no expert on British culture or how the term “Chav” is used. But it sounds similar to how “redneck” is used in America. “Redneck” is essentially a slur. Some have tried to reclaim the word by defiantly using it as a self-identifier. But it’s most often used by liberal bigots to smear those with different views and opinions from themselves.

  • Johnny Rox

    Agreed with sbuffalonative, we are a thick skinned people.

    Regardless, having been to the UK, I will relate to you all that the term ‘chav’ is the equivalent of the North American term ‘wigger’.

    Just saying.

  • Sylvie

    The word may be peculiar to Britain, but the phenomen certainly isn’t; the unskilled, and often unemployed, white underclass. What are they called in the States, rednecks? trailer trash?

    In Australia they are called ‘Bogans’ of ‘Bevans’, the low income lot that wear flannelette shirts (with a pack of cigs in the top-pocket) and ugg-boots and generally seem not to care about their appearance or ‘social image’, if you will. And they are legion! They’re a pretty harmless lot really from what I’ve seen and I can tell you this much; they would not care what the upper-class toffs think of them!

    I don’t know why anyone from the Guardian would be too worried about this.

    7 — Anonymous wrote at 8:58 PM on June 6:

    I’m certainly no expert on British culture or how the term “Chav” is used. But it sounds similar to how “redneck” is used in America. “Redneck” is essentially a slur. Some have tried to reclaim the word by defiantly using it as a self-identifier. But it’s most often used by liberal bigots to smear those with different views and opinions from themselves.

    Yes, it’s the same sort of deal down here in Oz. The ‘bogan/bevan’ is constantly made fun of on Australian television; never really in a nasty way, but it certainly smells of that university-educated superiority style. Everthing they may think or do is discounted completely.

  • Anonymous

    For years now I’ve noticed whenever I talk to Brits abroad I always hear them blame England’s ills on these “Chavs”. People should be allowed in wherever they come from as these chavs are the problem, it usually goes.

    Kind of like in Australia how they throw the word “bogan” around so loosely nowadays, in much the same fashion.

  • Cousin Charlie from TN

    “For the most part, I believe name-calling generally has little effect on whites. They may be called any sort of name but regardless, whites simply carry on.”

    So true. Anyone “offended” by being called a chav, chavvy, etc., please get over it. Same for “redneck”, “white trash”, “grayboy”, and any other “insults”.

    The chavvies do seem to be similar to the droopy-pants wearers (white) mentioned in a previous thread. That just seems like an obvious observation.

    Point being, we need zero laws or commissions to settle this type of name-calling. Humans have had labels like this for the “other” for maybe 30,000 years. Probably more.

  • Anonymous

    For non-British readers, the following will provide both descriptions and photos of Chavs (and their beloved Burberry tartan ballcaps).

    A few weeks back, at the time of the Royal Wedding, the conservative (well, sort of, anyway) blogger and satirist Iowahawk wrote this funny fantasia about a parallel “royal” wedding uniting two prominent Chav families. Although fiction, this piece explains quite a lot about Chav “culture”:

    http://tinyurl.com/6h8bbsp

    LONDON – Thousands of celebrating Britons gathered outside Peckham Council House Abbey to toss rice and empty vodka bottles this afternoon, following the gala royal wedding of HRH Tiffany Skinner, Chavesse of Alcester, and Wayne MacDuffie, Grand Ned of Glasgow…

  • English Tony from NYC

    I think increased use of terms like “chav” in Britain and “redneck” in the U.S. by minorities and liberal whites has a sinister connotation that isn’t always appreciated. It reflects an unwillingness of the privileged to distinguish between the respectable white working class and the white underclass. For them, poor white people are all the same. As one from an English working class background I can vouch for the fact that people like me feel nothing in common with any underclass and we in fact despise them.

    In my working life in New York, I have often heard minorities and liberal whites use disparaging terms ike “redneck,” “trailer trash” and so on with impunity. If I was ever heard to use a comparable word about any minority, I would have lost my job.

  • Pat

    No. 10 ‘people should be allowed in wherever they come from’…this is a standard PC response. No-one wants to be thought a ‘racist’ after all – do they? Take it from me most in this country are sick of people being ‘allowed in’. I wonder who you meet on your travels. Unfortunately the chavs are the product of a dramatically dumbed down education system, probably deliberate. Why educate them when we have all these cheaper ‘people’ coming in to replace them.

  • Anonymous

    Post #9 – Sylvie – the trend I have noticed online (eg comments on news sites, forums etc) is that “bogan” is now used for conservatives, anti-immigration advocates, so-called “racists” etc. It’s gone beyond the flanny’s and become a go-to insult of choice for the left any time they want to discredit opposing views. Ironic that they are using a word that carries a definite racial connotation.

  • Whiteplight

    11 — Cousin Charlie from TN wrote at 6:39 AM on June 7:

    …”

    Point being, we need zero laws or commissions to settle this type of name-calling. Humans have had labels like this for the “other” for maybe 30,000 years. Probably more.”

    Respectfully, this is not the real issue, or point. Culturally, we whites are taught to bear name-calling and bullying – to a degree; “Stick and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” I recall many such chants from my childhood. I don’t know if they are so common anymore, however. But the REAL issue is that “minority” groups, through the well thought out tutelage of Herbert Marcuse’s Critical Theory that making issues of name calling – BOTH WAYS, was an important means of gaining eventual political advantage. Our lack of response, or stoicism in the face of it, is useful to those who would take advantage of us and/or destroy us. That is the point.

  • Stiv

    “Get over it”

    Speaking as a white displaced Southerner, I still won’t tolerate anyone using the name redneck, etc, as a slur tactic to keep me in my place or demean me. If they use it without malice as their way of describing a certain segment of society, no problem.

    But, terminology like white trash is always unacceptable; particularly when it’s used to describe people who are nothing more or less than working-class, rural; those are often people who can never quite meet their criteria for what considered socially desirable, no matter what.

    I’m not fond of elitism directed at whites by other whites. Unfortunately, that’s been my experience in too many instances. No, there shouldn’t be hate laws or thought crime laws, but it shouldn’t be encouraged either.

  • from the bayou

    I agree that we are thick skinned and words don’t bother us, but we do need to make a ruckus about it the same way non-white groups do, call everyone from newspapers to elected officials, because hate speech laws are already strong, and if we don’t jump on the bandwagon, attacking Whites verbally and physically will continue to be classified as “non-hate”.

    Non white whiners about “hate” already defend the hateful actions of their own camp, & we can too.

  • Orion Blue

    I think that the term Chav is aimed at the White Working Class generally, though it should be noted that not all Chavs are necessarily poor. It is partly about certain style too, eg ostentatious jewellery, cheap sportswear, etc.

    The term is used by those who use PC terms and feign to embrace diversity and minority grievance mongering. It is a social status marker; a means of distancing oneself from other Whites.

  • Johnny English

    The term “chav” definitely refers to members of the ethnically-white, indigenous underclass in England. (And, yes, I do mean England, although there may be approximate equivalents in the very few predominantly urban parts of Scotland and Wales.)

    Nevertheless, “Antidote” @#4 is quite correct in identifying this underclass as absolutely de-cultured (in terms of sympathy with or knowledge of indigenous English culture and history); it is, as he/she correctly puts it, completely “urban” (i.e. black American) in its modes of behaviour and dress, and its consumption of contemporary popular “culture”.

    Anonymous @#1 is also quite right in identifying the source of the deculturation of these ethnic whites (but – bear this in mind, simple-minded white nationalists who see only virtue in a white skin – whites who are culturally black) as the social, cultural and educational policies of Cultural Marxists, who have quite deliberately used alien (indeed, actively hostile) cultural patterns and products – disseminated among the ignorant of all races – as an ideological battering-ram against the host society, whose downfall they have connived in bringing about through the destruction of its culture as well as its people (through mass immigration, miscegenation and – most sinister of all – the subsitution of an alien culture or cultures (although black urban American culture provides the very low common denominator) for the indigenous one, even among the ever-dwindling and marginalised indigenous population).