If I say “chav” to people of my own age, I can pretty much rely on the same image popping into their brain as pops into mine, an amalgam of tracksuits, cheap jewellery, Burberry, and kebabs, with just a hint of Rimmel. Chavs to me are essentially white, poor and badly-dressed.
But say “chav” to my son, and he sees something else. He essentially sees a young black man in a hooded sweatshirt whose most defining characteristic is his affected gangster-style of talk. He is in-your-face, aggressive and ridiculous.
What is doubly odd about this is that my son goes to school in Croydon, where the eponymous facelift is pretty much a staple of the female chav. At least in my definition. But he just doesn’t see it.
My theory on this is that chav is now an insult platform. Like a good API, it is endlessly reusable. It is the developer network of insults. This is apparent in the Wikipedia attempt to define the word:
The word may have its origins in Romani language.12 One suggested etymology for “chav” is that it derives from the Romani word chavo, meaning boy (cf. “yob” – a reversal of boy).34 This is similar to the colloquial Spanish word chaval and “Chavo”, meaning “Kid” or “guy” which again is usually free from negative connotation. The Romani chavo appears to have transferred to the Nonantum, Massachusetts dialect as “chabby”, though without the negative connotations of “chavo”. The Kentish dialect used to refer to children as “Chaveys”. 5 An alternative etymology suggests that pupils atCheltenham Ladies’ College and Cheltenham College used the word to describe the young men of the town (“Cheltenham Average”).67
Any word that can be traced to Romani, Spanish, Italian-American dialect, Kentish and Cheltenham Ladies College has to be admired for its flexibility. Truly, it is the Unix of personal contempt.
Picture courtesy of chav-bling-bling on Flickr. There’s some great picture groups on there, like.