Britain's Chav Controversy

A think tank groups the British slang "chav" with inflammatory racist language.

LONDON, 17 July, 2008 -- The war on "chav" is on, and when all's said and done, the noisy British teens with their fake designer clothes, gold jewelry, cheap cider drinking and disruptive behavior could be better off for it.

A British think-tank this week is calling on the British media and population to stop using the word "chav." According to The Fabian Society, calling someone a chav is not politically correct, and should be put on the same footing as the "N" word.

"The Guardian and the BBC use the word 'chav,' but they do not use certain words they consider too insulting," Rachel Jolley, Web editor of The Fabian Society, told ABC. "They should reconsider the way they use language."

"Chav" recently made it into the Oxford English Dictionary as "a young person of a type characterized by brash and loutish behavior and the wearing of designer-style clothes; usually with connotations of a low social status." In other words, the teenagers playing loud music at the back of the bus, with the pristine sneakers and less pristine vocabulary.

The chav strives to look expensive while remaining "street," a paradox that results in fake Burberry hats over rock-solid Crocs for chavs, and two-piece tracksuits over 5-inch pumps for their female equivalents, the chavettes. The place you are most likely to spot this social phenomenon is at the mall during school hours.

"They are replicating celebrity styles at the market level," explains Dr. Keith Hayward. Hayward was one of the first to research the phenomenon, revealing that chav had taken off as the national expression to describe this kind of individuals.

"The use of the term 'chav' skyrocketed in British newspapers from virtually zero in the years 1995-2003 to a startling 946 during the last 12 months [of 2005]," he wrote in Crime, Media, Culture in 2005.

As the chav phenomenon grew more common, the media took a hold of its comic effect, in the forms of shows such as the very popular "Little Britain," and the reality TV show "Big Brother," which relies heavily on chavs making a nuisance of themselves on the show to keep its audience captivated.

"This is middle class hatred of the white working class, pure and simple," says Fabian Society Editor Tom Hampson, in a comment on the Guardian Web site. "It is sneering and patronizing and – perhaps most dangerous – it is distancing, turning the chav into the kind of feral beast that exists only in tabloid headlines."

However, chav is usually taken as a mere social commentary. As Hayward remarks, it was not always a pejorative term. "It comes from Kent and was an expression of endearment which meant a small boy, or a young lad," he told ABC News.

Today, it is used by chavs themselves. "The word 'chav' has grown within the community that it represents," Laura Midgley, co-founder of The Campaign Against Political Correctedness told ABC News. "People work to be chavs," she adds. "It is something they aspire to be, like a badge of honor."

One click on the Internet suppies evidence of that hard work. Chavs really like, for instance, to test their chaviness, through online quizzes such as Chav bloggers also enjoy displaying their chavness, as this paragraph from can attest: "It took a while for Lush to recognise me.(…) But once I'd sat down, opened a tin of beer, lit a fag and yelled a bit I think she got fond memories of when she was in me belly, gave me a nice big smile and went into a dreamy sleep."

Other British expressions also target various social groups in derogatory ways. "Posh," for one, describes someone of wealth, often artistocrats or wannabe-artistocrats, with affected manners and thick snobbery toward anyone of lower status. "Yob," the inverse of Boy, is attributed to delinquent youth with a taste for destruction and petty criminality. "Prole," short for proletarian, directly targets labor workers for their poverty.

Yet the Fabian Society is not arguing for these expressions to be dropped from common language.

"It is deeply offensive to a largely voiceless group," writes Hampson, who compares "chav" to a racial slur or insult on ones' religion or sexual orientation. "It betrays a deep and revealing level of class hatred."

But unlike one's skin color or sexuality, chavness is mostly a choice. Unlike "prole" or the American un-PC "trailer trash," it is a misconception that chavs are underprivileged.

"'Chav' has more to do with style than with money," Laura Midgley told ABC News. "It's a certain look: the baseball hat, the tracksuit … You could be very rich and be a chav."

Coleen Rooney, Jordan, and most WAGs (Wives and Girlfriends of the British soccer squad) are examples of celebrity chavs. Victoria Beckham is often dubbed the "Queen of Chav," (achieving the double distinction of being both Posh and Chav).

Chavs, by definition, are poor in culture and somewhat anti-intellectual. Their purchasing power affords them the brands that make up the chav style, the alcohol and tobacco essential to the chav way of life, the hair gel and heavy cosmetics of the chav look — but the chav doesn't spend a lot of time in school.

"A chav doesn't have bourgeois taste, and makes poor consumer choices," Hayward explains. "It's the choices they make that get them vilified."

But according to him, watching our language will not change the way chavs are perceived. "It's difficult to replace 'chav' because it's so ubiquitous," he said. "But it's a real phenomenon, the result of a hyper-consumerism society."

It might simply be too late for such a debate. "Chav" is not only well anchored in the British lexicon. "Chavish" and "chavtastic" have also made it to the Collins English Dictionary.