Is it ever acceptable to call someone a ‘chav’?

avatar By , published on 13 May 2012 10:33 am

Is ‘chav’ the “vile word at the heart of fractured Britain”? The stereotypical image of a ‘chav’ has become prevalent in the media through characters such as Vicky Pollard in the BBC comedy series Little Britain. The future King of England, Prince William, once attended a fancy dress party ‘dressed as a chav’ and in 2011 a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, Baroness Hussein-Ece, (ironically on the Equality and Human Rights Commission at the time) tweeted that she was “trapped in a queue in chav land”. The internet is awash with different websites related to the phenomenon. Why not take a test to find out if you’re a ‘chav’? Wondering if you live in a ‘chav town’? There’s a website for you too! But what does the word ‘chav’ really mean? Why has it become so commonplace? And is it ever acceptable to call someone a ‘chav’?

In order to understand the consequences of using any word, it’s important to a) discover when it was first used b) consider how its meaning has changed over time and c) examine who uses the word and in which contexts. The term is derived from the Romani word for child, “chavi”. It is a common misconception that ‘chav’ is a word formed from the principal letters of Council Housed And Violent but this is an example of a “backronym”, an acronym formed after a word has come into usage. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word chav first appeared in an internet forum in 1998. Its first outing in a newspaper article came in 2001 and its popularity has skyrocketed ever since.

This article was inspired by a comment made on Facebook. One of my friends posted a status expressing his unease at a so-called “Chav Night” at a club in Oxford. You know the drill:  bling, Burberry caps, tracksuit bottoms, trainers and large amounts of make-up and fake tan. Someone commented on this status arguing that the word did not refer to class, but a certain type of ‘subculture’, and that ‘white middle class’ students shouldn’t take offense on behalf of other groups.

I was extremely annoyed at this for two main reasons. The first being that the word chav is invariably linked to class and to try to deny this is the height of ignorance and stupidity. The second reason being I took offence was due to being called a “white middle class student” by a complete stranger. I am, in fact, working class. I went to state schools and grew up in a fairly disadvantaged area of Bolton, in the North West of England. At Secondary School I wore tracksuit bottoms and football shirts, as did most of my male friends. When I moved to a Sixth Form College in Bury (a nearby town) the fashionistas out there will be overjoyed to learn that I moved on to the daring combination of jeans and a hoodie. However, it was the first time I ever encountered class prejudice. “Kick anyone’s head in this week?” a fellow student in my Maths A Level class would joke. I had a short, cropped haircut and a slight Bolton accent (for any of you unsure about what this might sound like, I say pears as purrs), therefore I could be hilariously compared to a football hooligan. This always made me feel uncomfortable even though I knew it was only meant in jest. So I would try to make a light-hearted reply along the lines of: “No, not this time unfortunately, they managed to escape! Next time though.” And I would hate myself a little inside. It didn’t matter that I comfortably outperformed this student in every exam we sat. That was beside the point. The joke was based only upon my appearance and the way I spoke. I’m now a student at the University of Oxford and I believe it is now more important than ever to have a discussion about the use of pejorative terms such as chav.

After the UK riots in 2011 which started in London, the rapper and singer Plan B released a provocative protest song called Ill Manors with the chorus: “Oi! I said Oi! What you looking at, you little rich boy? We’re poor round here, go home and lock your door.”  It tried to address some of the misconceptions about young working class people and how they can be marginalised by society. He also gave a thoughtful and eloquent interview with MistaJam on Radio 1Xtra about the use of the word chav, stating: “[it is]a derogatory term used… by certain sectors of Middle England to define people from poor and unfortunate backgrounds that have less money than them [and] that haven’t had as good an education as them. And, for me, that term is no different from similar terms used to be derogatory towards race and sex.” He went on to argue that the commonplace use of the word chav in the media is one of the reasons that young working class people feel alienated in society. I can personally vouch for this; I was called a chav a number of times at school. It was a humiliating and disempowering experience that I wouldn’t wish to inflict on anyone.

Despite what John Prescott said in 1997, we’re not all middle class now. Huge class differences remain in today’s society and the gap between rich and poor has widened in the past 20 to 30 years. Maybe this is one of the reasons that the use of the word chav rapidly increased in such a short space of time? Is it also related to a more divided, us-and-them culture? I’m honestly not sure. What I do know however, is that when someone uses the word chav they are belittling a group of people they know little about and reinforcing vicious stereotypes. Owen Jones, political commentator and author of the book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class recounts the reaction of one of his friends about the use of the word ‘chav’, “You’re talking about my family: you’re talking about my brother, you’re talking about my mum. You’re talking about my friends.” You’re talking about me.