Chav: The Slur That Won't Let Go
An examination of the UK term for a usually poor, possibly threatening young person.
This post originally appeared in VICE UK
A couple of weeks ago, a new word—"chivster"—was curled out on to our already stained and woebegone linguistic landscape. It came via Sunday Times Style, whose "Going Up" section had this newly-invented subcultural hybrid at the top of its list. "Hipster-turned-chav," it opined. "Tattoos and hoodies in, beards and long hair out. See Tom Hardy for further details."
Following the inexorable meh of " Health Goth," the chivster represents yet more semantic pollution from the current tide of laddish leisurewear, trainers and tracksuit bottoms, which has infiltrated luxe fashion in recent months. The term was invented by self-styled trend forecaster, LSN (Lifestyle News Network).
"With the chivster we started to notice a new aesthetic coming through blogs, niche magazines, graduate fashion shows and of course on the streets," Peter Firth, a former journalist and now LSN's "Insight Editor," told me. "Right now sports and performance wear is on the rise, and we're reaching what I think is the first wave of nostalgia for the 'chav' look of the mid naughties."
Chav is, of course, along with "hoodie," "scally," or "ned," reductive shorthand for an oft-imagined adolescent, usually from an estate, who, in addition to sportswear, likes weed, benefit fraud, FIFA, and intimidation. It's a word that does nothing to help the problems that the myth might have grown out of—problems of underemployment and antisocial behavior. But despite many attempts to kill the word, it has endured. Why?
Terms like chivster don't help. In the end the new word doesn't seem to have caught on, attention confined to a bemused few on Twitter, and an Evening Standard follow-up piece that asked: "Is the chivster a thing, then?"
No, is the answer. But it doesn't mean its materialization does not betray a truth. It feels like fashion media has fallen back on the appeal of class mockery under the guise of an invented style tribe.
The word chav was said to have Gypsy roots, coming from the Romany word for child, chavi; it was used as shorthand for suddenly upwardly mobile perennials like Wayne Rooney and Jade Goody as well as the conveyor belt of dispossessed scowling on Jeremy Kyle. The obvious way for us to look at them was from a lofty, disgusted height. Despite the word's grotesque usage, though, it was lifestyle journalism that carried it through to a kind of hushed respectability.
"The 'chivster' thing is not surprising," says the University of Birmingham's Dr. Joe Bennett, who wrote his Ph.D thesis on the usage of the word in the media between 2004 and 2008, and is writing a book on language and morality. " Chav has grown out of ways of talking about lifestyle groups as much as class, which may be one of the reasons why it was invented." Making a shrewd point about the word's usage in media, he adds: "Obviously since it first appeared, you'd never get chav in the hard news. It was always the lifestyle sections, the light news, the Sunday magazines: Something happened to the columnist's family when they 'came across this crowd of chavs.'"
'Chav' was announced to the world ten years ago as Oxford University's first ever word of the year. Bennett lays part of the blame for the word's longevity on Oxford University. After that the word appeared everywhere, from Grace Dent's hugely popular Diary of a Chav children's book series, to message boards and forums like Mumsnet, where it is still used without fear. "If you read all the stuff that was published, there was quite critical stuff in there—but the effect of producing a press release saying 'chav is the word of the year' is very different to that," says Bennett. "After that, you'd get serious sociology articles that labelled groups of kids as a 'chav' group."
Owen Jones's publishing sensation Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class popularized the view that the word was no longer viable for usage, describing the phenomenon as a "flagrant triumphalism of the rich who, no longer challenged by those below them, instead point and laugh at them."
But in selling around 120,000 copies and being emblazoned with the emblematic Burberry cap on the cover, it might have achieved an aim counter to that of Jones or his publisher Verso, in helping canonize the term for some until it has become not one of violation or abuse, but of subcultural affection, even nostalgia, for modern Britain's very own alienated antihero.
If "chivster" ever did take off, it wouldn't be the first time that middle-class kids have looked to the working-class they feel estranged from in a kind of fascination (and maybe jealousy) for a supposed wantonness that cannot thrive among the strictures and etiquettes of Middle England. For LSN's Firth, it's this that fuels it. "We are frequently shown a life through social media and mainstream media that is inaccessible to most of us," he says. "Maybe we need more angry young men and fewer people who are willing to roll over and accept things as they are so long as they can still afford to live in Dalston."
While it's hard to see a horde of angry young graphic designers posing a real threat to London's grossly disproportionate property prices, it's true that poverty and abandonment have always been impetuses for subculture. Boris Johnson's new London has played its own part in siring the non-subculture of the chivster. The city that he has designed has no space for those communal spaces in which music-born subcultures have germinated in the past—abandoned warehouses, makeshift shebeens inside residential properties, fields—spaces that have inspired a kind of cross-class unity, last seen in its most intense form during the rave era. When you don't have those spaces, you don't have subcultures, and it has been left to the media and people like Firth to fill the gap.
Unfortunately, you can't design a subculture from scratch, which results in the uncomfortable truth of what subculture is now: a linguistically confused non-event dreamed up to persuade masses of people to prefix a social-media post with: "So apparently this is a thing."
Firth acknowledges that the history of the word chav is "highly derogatory". On the flip side, though, he says, "The term isn't meant by us to be offensive, but rather something that's memorable and instantly understandable." This, in a nutshell, is the problem with branding people and calling it a subculture. It takes the logic of business and applies it to something that should grow organically.
Usage of the word chav in the newspapers has decreased, but it's kept steadily bubbling along by the middle classes themselves. People in the media use it freely. "Yeah, it went alright," one acquaintance, a music video producer, once confided after shooting a "gritty" promo in Tilbury, Essex, a place situated in a banlieues-like state of decay outside the M25 ring road. "A load of chavs came over and started bothering us though. Absolute scumbags."
Ours is an age where new editorial ideas are served up by endless meetings cobbled together from statistics and so-called media trends. Guests attend "Trend Briefings" in places such as the Future Laboratory in Spitalfields—a fortress in a flattened media topography, where LSN is based. There, aspiring brands and writers are served canapés of franken-words with a side order of pseudo-intellectual concept. Take your pick from "fear marketing," "the polarity paradox," "the U-turn society," "the sharded self," or the "me-conomy," but no amount of Rennie is going to help you keep it down.
Consider the etymology of the word "hipster" compared with that of the "chav." The "hipster" evolved out of the jazz age, hepcat evolving into hepster, which in turn became hipster. It was always allied with connotations of superiority in terms of cultural capital, evolving until the word was immortalized by Norman Mailer, who described it as an "American existentialist" bent on "setting out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self." The phrase was reappropriated around 15 years ago to variously describe the perhaps more self-conscious but no less astute subcultures of Shoreditch, Williamsburg, and beyond.
It's why the fusion of the two stereotypes is a problematic one. The obvious way for the hipster to view the chav is from a lofty height. Where the disdain for the hipster may carry some kind of affection—we were all pretentious twats once, right!—the hatred of chavs carries a more sadistic air.
Next to Sunday Times Style's ordaining of "chivster" was Camilla Long's editorial about the scandal of professional wives powerless against their big-shot husbands. Long purports to be a feminist—a view no doubt shared by Sunday Times Style—and the fashion industry is often commended for its feminist ethics. Rightly so. Yet the longevity of chav also relies, in part, on society's background misogyny, from blanket tabloid derision of single mothers to povvo porn Twitter feeds, advertising stolen images of mid-teen girls as "chav slags."
"You rarely see class mentioned by mainstream feminist commentators," says feminist campaigner and writer Rhian E Jones, who is trying to highlight that the use of "chav" is a feminist issue and who spoke at the conference Does "Poverty Porn" Undermine the Welfare State in Hulme, Manchester, yesterday. "Working-class women don't have access to the media, so they can't defend themselves against the misogyny directed to them under cover of the word chav."
The chav stereotype has taken hold to such an extent, she says, that we don't actually need to use the word. As she says, "We all know what someone means by 'single mother.' It's someone on a council estate with kids by multiple fathers."
"I often have conversations with people and they know what I've spent my time doing," says Dr. Joe Bennett. "They want to say someone's a 'chav' but they have to avoid it. Because we live in a society with such strong hierarchies of class and status, it became a term not just used to express pure hatred, but to express where you want to be, where you want to live, where you want to send your kids to school. The ultimate problem is not that people are saying 'chav': it's that it is a useful word for them to use in the first place."
"Chivster" will never catch on. It's too artless, too clumsy. But it matters. Like much reductive matter pushed out by the industry, it massages prejudice, allowing it to bloat. It isn't just Daily Mail readers who carry forward bigoted, lazy views—it's young generations at the mercy of ever-narrowing options in terms of careers and creativity.
The endurance of "chav" reflects the new meanness of the UK, a hardening of the so-called squeezed middle while the safety net of the welfare state is stripped. The economics of aspiration guides such language, and as the screw is turned in forever-booming London, there looks to be no let-up.
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