Why is 'chav' still controversial?

Kate Moss and Matt Lucas as Vicky PollardImage source, Getty Images

A new book claims the word "chav" is helping to reignite class war. The journalist Polly Toynbee calls it "the vile word at the heart of fractured Britain". Recently a peer caused a kerfuffle when she tweeted about being stuck in "chav-land". So almost a decade after its emergence, is chav really the most divisive word in Britain, asks Tom de Castella.

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.

Image source, Other
Image caption,
The use of the term has grown alongside concern about anti-social behaviour

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.

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".

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Cheryl Cole used the term to indicate working-class-made-good in 2005

Whatever the complicated arguments over class, there is always a suspicion for some that the word 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.