Why you should care
Because we’re two nations divided by a common language.
Part of an occasional series on unusual words we wish we had in [American] English … or perhaps not.
You know the type. Reebok-branded tracksuit, possibly fake gold chain, a Burberry cap and an insolent attitude to pretty much everyone other than themselves. They’re probably playing truant from school or, if they’re old enough, claiming unemployment benefits. They just loiter on street corners and listen to utterly ghastly rap music. OK, maybe you don’t know, but every Brit knows who I’m talking about: the “chav.”
Chav (derogatory, informal): A young person characterized by brash and loutish behavior and the wearing of designer-style clothes.
If you are familiar with the stereotype, you probably won’t be satisfied by that definition. It’s adapted from every British logophile’s bible, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which added the noun in 2006, two years after it had been declared Word of the Year in the U.K. Other definitions specify that one must bear a name such as Tiffany or Wayne to classify as a chav, have a record of petty crime or even “drive a souped-up Vauxhall Nova” (referring to a low-end British car brand).
While everybody knows what a chav is, and everybody has an opinion on its use, amazingly, nobody really knows where the word comes from. It materialized seemingly out of thin air some time around the year 2000, but unlike other new words such as YOLO and selfie, chav isn’t obviously a compound or variation of existing English words, says Fiona McPherson, senior editor of new words at the OED. “We’re pretty sure it’s originally from Romany. Probably from a word čhavo,” meaning boy or youth, says McPherson. However, there are a number of competing claims to the etymological crown, including one from my own hometown, Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, which proudly asserts that chav in fact refers to the “Cheltenham average.” However, lexicographers often dismiss such claims from me and my fellow Cheltonians as “backronyms” — invented etymological roots that might seem appealing, but have little evidence to back them up. Another chavtastic curiosity is not just the word’s mysterious roots but, unlike various other slang words, “that it survived” the test of time, says Jonathon Green, the leading lexicographer of English slang. “It’s only four letters — it’s great for the tabloid headlines.”
Indeed, Brits are divided on whether the word chav (and the female chavette) is a playful gibe or a dangerously pejorative epithet. While comedians have parodied chavvy dress, behavior and language to hilarious effect — most notably the obnoxious, litter-mouthed, reproductively profligate 15-year-old Vicky Pollard, played by Matt Lucas in the satirical Little Britain sketch show — others have condemned the term as a particularly divisive form of modern classism and ageism against working-class youth. “Basically, it’s another word for underclass,” says Green. “It’s a terribly snobbish word, of course.” Left-wing journalist and political commentator Owen Jones shot to prominence in 2011 with his book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, and his fellow Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee referred to it as “the vile word at the heart of fractured Britain.” Chav has even been called “the most divisive word in Britain.”
This mysterious British word conveys far more than the difficult-to-define stereotype, but also speaks volumes about the society that gave birth to it. The chav is perhaps more dangerous, then, as a social slur than as the threat of Burberry-clad petty crime.