The press in Britain has recently been having fun mocking a group for which pejorative descriptions have been created such as “non-educated delinquents” and “the burgeoning peasant underclass”. The subjects of these derogatory descriptions are said to be set apart by ignorance, fecklessness, mindless violence and bad taste.
To illustrate the last of these, critics point to their style of dress: a love of flashy gold jewellery (hooped earrings, thick neck chains, sovereign rings and heavy bangles, which all may be lumped together under the term bling-bling); the wearing of white trainers (in what is called “prison white”, so clean that they look new); clothes in fashionable brands with very prominent logos; and baseball caps, frequently in Burberry check, a favourite style. The women, the Daily Mail wrote recently in a characteristic burst of maidenly distaste, “pull their shoddily dyed hair back in that ultra-tight bun known as a ‘council-house facelift’, wear skirts too short for their mottled blue thighs, and expose too much of their distressingly flabby midriffs”.
This upsurge of popular distaste towards one group may be evidence for a cultural shift back towards a class-ridden British society — at least the fear that it might be so is causing some alarm in liberal circles. Critics point to the copying of the style by many younger television celebrities as a further dumbing-down of that medium. Much of the attention is due to the experience of a Web site, which was intended to be humorous but which was infiltrated by extremists who threatened to turn it into a hate site.
From a linguistic perspective the most interesting aspect is the wide variety of local names given to the type. Scots call them neds (often said to be an acronym of “non-educated delinquents”, but that’s a folk etymology, given credence by being mentioned as fact during a debate in the Scottish parliament in 2003; it’s actually from an abridged form of the given name Edward, which was attached to this group in the period of the teddy-boys, who dressed in a version of Edwardian costume), while Liverpudlians prefer scallies (a term of long-standing for a boisterous, disruptive or irresponsible young man); Kev is common around London (presumably from the given name Kevin, common among this group and popularised through the portrayal on his television show by the comedian Harry Enfield of an idiotic teenager with that name). Other terms recorded from various parts of the country are smicks, spides, moakes and steeks (all from Belfast), plus bazzas, scuffheads, stigs, skangers, yarcos, and kappa slappers (girls who wear Kappa brand tracksuits, slapper being British slang for a promiscuous or vulgar woman).
The term that has become especially widely known in recent weeks, at least in southern England, is the one borrowed for the name of the Web site, chav. A writer in the Independent thought it derived from the name of the town of Chatham in Kent, where the term is best known and probably originated. It is also commonly said that it's an acronym, either from “Council House And Violent” or “Cheltenham Average” (the word being widely known in that area). As usual, we must treat supposed acronymic origins with the greatest suspicion; these examples are definitely recent after-the-event inventions as attempts to explain the word, though very widely known and believed.
But it seems that the word is from a much older underclass, the gypsies, many of whom have lived in that area for generations. Chav is almost certainly from the Romany word for a child, chavi, recorded from the middle of the nineteenth century. We know it was being used as a term of address to an adult man a little later in the century, but it hasn’t often been recorded in print since and its derivative chav is new to most people.
Other terms for the class also have Romany connections; another is charver, Romany for prostitute. Yet another is the deeply insulting pikey, presumably from the Kentish dialect term for gypsy that was borrowed from turnpike, so a person who travels the roads.
Did chavi die out, only to be reinvented recently? That seems hardly likely from the written and anecdotal evidence, and many correspondents report that it is well known to them as a spoken term in various parts of the country; what we’re seeing is a term that has been in active but inconspicuous use for the last 150 years suddenly bursting out into wider popular use in a new sense through circumstances we don’t fully understand.