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Tony Blair waxwork dressed as a chav
A waxwork of Tony Blair dressed as a chav, in Madame Tussauds



Listen to Professor Crystal

Chav. It came to the fore as a word in 2005 really, I didn't remember hearing it much before that. It refers to a type of youth, supposedly uncultured, maybe a bit anti-social, perhaps even violent, but certainly marked out, at least from the point of view of the critic, by very bad taste. Chavs are supposed to wear a lot of flashy jewellery, white trainers, baseball caps, sham designer clothes. Girls expose a lot of midriff. Nothing racial about it all, I should say.

Now, whether it's cool or not to be a chav, I couldn't say - at least, not at my age! I find the linguistics much more interesting. It's a problem though, the linguistics. Where does the word come from? It's been around since the 19th century. Lexicographer Eric Partridge mentions it in his huge dictionary of slang and unconventional English. He talks about it coming from Romany (the language of the gypsies), 'chavy' - a child, or 'chaval' - a boy. And then later it was used for 'men' as well.

But nobody knows who's reactivated it in recent times. It's a noun, 'a chav', 'chavs', and also an adjective - people talk about 'chav behaviour' or 'chav insults' and that sort of thing. Oh, don't believe the popular etymologies that you read sometimes in the press and on websites. I saw one the other day, people said, 'It's an acronym, 'chav', from council house and violent' - well, no, it isn't, that was made up in recent times. Appealing as these etymologies are, they're nothing to do with the real Romany history of this very interesting word.


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