The BBC website tells us that the latest edition of the OED includes 1,500 new words, including chav, which is defined as "a young working class person who dresses in casual sports clothing".
This is wikipedia’s view on things: "Chav refers to a subculture stereotype of a person who is uneducated, uncultured and prone to antisocial or immoral behavior. The label is typically, though not exclusively, applied to teenagers and young adults of white working-class or lower-middle class origin. Essentially very few self-identify with these labels and groupings; rather, they are used by those on the outside to categorise those supposedly conforming to the stereotype, which is marked by the similarity of trends in clothing and behaviour. The essential stereotype is of being loudly lower-class, with ‘class’ defined by taste rather than income."
This definition is much more complete; it makes it clear that this is an attempt by society to define and classify one specific social group. It is also a convenient way to ostracise a whole segment of a population, formed of lots of different individuals who are linked by some behaviour trends, which are rather superficial and only part of their story. This "chav" label is quite damning; once it’s been stuck on someone, it is unlikely that this person will be taken seriously at all, she or he has been branded and will likely be dismissed as useless or a joke, regardless of his or her personal history.
This is part of society’s lazy way of dealing with different segments of the population; it provides handy one-size-fits-all categories for geeks, toffs, bible bashers, hippies, pikeys et al. while keeping them at a safe distance, so there’s no need to try and understand or, god forbid! engage with these people. Is the use of the word chav part of an attitude that could be described as a form of social racism?

By | 2016-10-18T15:51:06+00:00 June 10th, 2005|Words|7 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. k’alebøl June 13, 2005 at 9:30 pm


    A new one to me: chav is British English for “a young working class person who dresses in casual sports clothing” (via Naked Translations). The standard etymology is Romany, and the term’s Hispanic cognate, chaval, forms part of the lexicon of Spanish …

  2. Alex Hinge June 14, 2005 at 12:20 pm

    Interesting. When I was at school in the North East of England, the commonly used term for a light fingered person was a ‘Charver’. Maybe ‘Chav’ has derived from this?

  3. céline June 14, 2005 at 1:07 pm

    It looks like there might be a definite link there: in Romany, ‘charver’ = prostitute, ‘chavi’= male child, ‘chavvy’ = mate or friend.

  4. Marie June 16, 2005 at 2:25 pm

    I was told by a highly reliable source (ie, a drinking pal) that chav stood for ‘council house and violent’. Wherever it’s origins lie, I too find the term offensive and sneeringly supercilious. I hope it dies an early death along with the smug, middle class smartarse that coined it. Only joking…

  5. Phil Edwards June 27, 2005 at 10:46 am

    “Butcher’s whistle” threw me for a moment – I thought this was some sort of variant of “butcher’s apron”. (“Seen more meat on a butcher’s apron” – used to describe people as skinny (or otherwise poorly endowed).)
    Re chav, folk etymologies abound, but I think Celine’s derivation is the right one. (Romani imports seem to attract folk-etymology – cf. ‘posh’.) Although I don’t think ‘chavi’ and ‘chavvy’ can be separate words – it’s more likely that its root meaning is ‘boy’/’lad’/’son’, and that it’s used to mean ‘mate’/’pal’/etc. It’s a nasty coinage. I agree that it expresses a kind of ‘social racism’, but I’d add that it also verges on racism in the more usual sense, in the way that it draws on prejudice against Romanis and Travellers. You could say (at the risk of over-thinking it) that ‘chav’ is to ‘pikey’ as ‘white trash’ is to the N-word.
    (Which reminds me, at the risk of complete irrelevance – reading a Roger Vailland novel at school, we were told not to translate the Uncle-Tom-ish phrase ‘bons Negres’ as ‘good blacks’ or even ‘good Negroes’, but to use ‘good niggers’. Out of interest, is ‘Negres’ that bad? As my phrasing above suggests, ‘nigger’ in English is about as taboo as they come these days.)

  6. céline June 27, 2005 at 10:57 am

    Phil, I’ve since realised that “social racism” is a rather unarticulate way of expressing something that can be more simply described as “classism”. About “nègre”, I don’t think it could be used in a neutral and inoffensive manner in French. I see it as an extremely condescending term, coming from the colonisation era, during which Black people were seen as inferior and not quite human. Best to avoid it, really.

  7. Phil Edwards June 27, 2005 at 11:04 am

    Interesting – tends to confirm my impression that ‘Negre’ was more offensive than the apparent English equivalent. (On the other hand, I can’t now imagine using ‘Negro’ in English without a ton of qualifications, so maybe the difference isn’t so great.)
    Pardon the thread drift (and misplacement of the ‘butcher’s’ comment).

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