Everything you ever wanted to know about the word 'chav' (2023)

Interviewer: Andy Tootell (Ideas Lab)
Guest: Dr Joe Bennett
Recorded: 19/04/2012
Broadcast: 30/04/2012

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Andy: Hello, today I’m with Dr Joe Bennett who’s Lecturer in Applied Linguistics in the Centre for English Language Studies at the University of Birmingham. Hello Joe.

Joe: Hello.

Andy: Now today we’re going to be talking about ‘chavs’ or use of the word ‘chav’ and this is linked into an event that you’ll be hosting on May the 9th at Waterstone’s in Birmingham [New Street branch].

Joe: That’s right, yeah.

Andy: With the author Owen Jones who wrote ‘Chavs: the Demonization of the Working Class’.

Joe: Yeah.

Andy: So you’ve done a lot of work in this area so where does the word ‘chav’ originate from?

Joe: It comes from a Romany word, ‘chavi’ which means child and this is quite a well established etymology and it happened in the south east of England that this was borrowed into English and it’s sort of spread from there via the internet and the media and these kinds of things, it’s sort of spread.

Andy: Yeah.

Joe: 2004 it entered the Oxford English Dictionary as the first ever Word of the Year and was heavily promoted as such and that led to quite a lot of media coverage of the word and an increase in use in sort of the mainstream media, although it had been bubbling away on the internet and in people’s speech for a while. There are various sorts of false etymologies, false stories about where the word comes from. The most famous of these, and when I ask students “where does the word come from?” they always give me this one. Is to say that it’s an acronym of ‘Council House and Violent’.

Andy: Right.

Joe: And what this shows is that people are reading a meaning into the word and they go back and they make a story up where they think the word’s come from based on what they think the word means or how people are using the word and what this false etymology shows really is that it has these sort of class-related meanings. So they’ve reinterpreted it as meaning something to do with council housing and violence. As Owen Jones’ book points out it’s used in the demonization of the working class, especially young working class people as if they constitute some sort of underclass distinct from the rest of us non-chavs.

Andy: Regionally there have always been words sort of equivalent to ‘chavs’.

Joe: Yeah.

Andy: But ‘chavs’ has kind of leapt all the boundaries and it’s become sort of a national term.

Joe: Well there are loads of other words and some of these are still strong. In Scotland for example you have the word ‘ned’. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that one.

Andy: No, I’ve not come across that one.

Joe: Again, this has got a false etymology. People say ‘ned’, that’s a ‘non-educated delinquent’.

Andy: Oh right.

Joe: But it’s not, it’s got this false story behind it again, it’s got these sort of class-related meanings and there’s things like ‘scally’ in the north west.

Andy: Yeah.

Joe: ‘Charva’ in the north east and some of these still survive but a lot of the local variation in these kind of things has sort of disappeared. Partly that’s because it’s from the south east, language spreads from the south east quite often and partly it’s because of the whole media thing, that the media really picked up on the word ‘chav’ and really used it. But you’re right in the sense that it fits into this sort of long-established tradition of stereotypes of working class people. There’s something quite new about the word ‘chav’, there’s something quite new about the word itself and its spread nationally but it’s also very old, it’s a very old-fashioned thing, there have been words that mean similar things around for hundreds of years and people relate it back to the idea of the underclass or the undeserving poor and these concepts may be a little bit more formalised, a little bit more explicitly political than ‘chav’ but have very similar sort of meanings and are used in similar ways. I work in the Centre for English Language Studies and I’ve been looking at the linguistic stereotype of a chav, so the idea that chavs speak a particular way that is called ‘chav-speak’.

Andy: Again, something popularised by TV in some respects or depictions of characters on TV.

Joe: Yeah, yeah, certainly. So you have Vicky Pollard and Little Britain, you have the Catherine Tate character, Lauren. You have Armstrong & Miller on the BBC. They had these characters called the Chav Pilots who talked in this sort of plumy 1940s received pronunciation accent, but used words and grammatical structure and language that you would associate with this stereotype of chav-speak. A lot of the stuff that’s in print about chav-speak, a lot of people have written books like there’s a book called ‘The Little Book of Chav-Speak’, a lot of the kind of linguistic things they pick up on are really, really old-fashioned sort of working class language stereotypes, so things like what’s called h-dropping, so saying ‘ouse’ instead of ‘house’.

Andy: Right.

Joe: Which people were talking about hundreds of years ago.

Andy: That’s just a regional thing isn’t it?

Joe: Well it is slightly a regional thing but it’s also a class thing. It’s quite regionally widespread. There’s a great book written in 1880 by a guy called Alfred Leach called ‘The Letter H’ and it was all about the letter H and how you could tell the social standing of a person by getting them to pronounce words that began with an H. He said you can tell a cad because they would drop their Hs and the chav stuff’s very similar to this. People say you can tell a chav because they drop their Hs. Similarly things like TH-fronting, saying ‘fanks’ instead of ‘thanks’. In a way it’s Victorian ideas about language sort of revived along with Victorian ideas about social class. The chav stereotype fits into this long-standing very old stereotype.

Andy: Like we’ve said, TV has played a huge role in propagating the whole chav culture and Ali G I guess from the late 90s now I would imagine was one of the key people who was quite influential in terms of the way people spoke.

Joe: More in the way that people saw other people as speaking. I don’t think people watched Ali G and then said, you know, I’m going to speak like this but I think it did really inform how people stereotyped other people as speaking. So more stereotypes than chav culture. I dispute there really is anything called chav culture. It’s more a sort of stereotype of other people and in all these dictionaries of chav speak there are a lot of words and phrases that are sort of basically based on things that people like Ali G and Bo Selecta, I don’t know if you remember the Channel 4 series, Bo Selecta?

Andy: Yes, yeah, yeah.

Joe: So the word ‘bo’ for example is used in stereotyping. People say chavs go around saying “that’s proper bo” and that’s just entirely been propagated by this television programme. Or Ali G’s famous thing was he did this “aight” and people would say, ”oh you know, you can spot a chav because they go around saying ‘aight’”. I mean people don’t really. There are genuine multi-cultural working class innovations going on in the country at the moment but these stereotypes don’t really relate to them other than by stereotyping them at a very general level. And then a lot of this has to do with not only class by ethnicity, that’s what sort of Ali G and that’s what that stereotype fed into.

Andy: Very old examples though aren’t they now when you think of how long – even Bo Selecta was the early 2000s, the early noughties.

Joe: Yeah, they are very old examples.

Andy: And they’re very old examples to still be lingering.

Joe: Yeah, I think to some extent the stereotypes have sort of stuck. In a lot of the stereotypes of chav-speak there’s this idea that people do what’s sometimes called ‘mouth monopthomisation’, right, that’s the technical word for it which means that the vowel in ‘mouth’ is technically made of two vowels ‘a’,’o’,’u’ sort of, technically, but the idea is that chavs go around saying ‘maff’, but young people in the south east for example where this stereotype is especially associated with don’t really do this much anymore. They do it less than a couple of generations ago did but it’s still very strong in the stereotype. So the stereotypes sort of stick while the language changes and while people change and culture changes and society changes. So Ali G just keeps coming back and -

Andy: Yeah, haunting.

Joe: Haunting us! The ghost of Ali G looms over the 21st century! [laughing]

Andy: The word ‘chav’ was in the news again last year following the England riots during an interview on Newsnight when David Starkey said that a substantial section of chavs had become black in terms of the culture they adopt and the way they speak and he got in quite a lot of trouble for saying it.

Joe: He did. He said that there was this thing called a chav culture which is a phrase that you hear quite a lot and he said basically this chav culture was to blame for the riots. And not only that, he specified that there was a chav language which was to blame and this was part of what was really controversial because he said it was young white people trying to speak like they were black, which he saw as some sort of cultural intrusion. More generally the ways in which people have talked about chavs and the way in which people have talked about social class in recent years I think have been central to the way in which the riots have been, and continue to be, interpreted and this is something I’m looking at at the moment, the way in which politicians have sought to give interpretation to the riots in their language. So what kind of language have they used to talk about what happened and how does that language impact on what should be done about this kind of problem. Who’s to blame? So for example Ed Milliband has this – and this was last year’s Word of the Year according to the Oxford English Dictionary – he has this idea about the ‘squeezed middle’. At the bottom there’s rioters and at the top there’s the bankers and people who hack phones and MPs who fiddle their expenses and he’s done this very interesting thing of trying to link what he sees as sort of lack of values at the top and bottom of society by using the phrase ‘squeezed middle’. So there’s this language that has been developed in response to the riots and in response to the financial crisis and new ways of talking about the social class that relate back to the chav thing but are new and are different.

Andy: Joe, thank you very much for joining me today.

Joe: Thanks for having me. Thank you.

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: www.ideaslabuk.com. On the website, you can find out how to e-mail us with comments, questions or suggestions for future topics for the podcast. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer and producer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Andy Tootell.

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