Sunday, May 08, 2005
The Meaning of Chavs
Does the name “Chav” have a Romany origin or is it just street slang? CJ Stone picks through the prejudices to come to a surprising conclusion...
In a previous blog I wrote a story about my ex next door neighbour, the young alcoholic. In it I used the phrase: “a constant stream of tearaways in baseball caps stomping up and down the stairs”. Well I’m going to give you an insight into the editorial process now. In my submitted version of the column the word I used was “chavvies” not “tearaways”. The word was changed because our esteemed editor, Tania, had never heard it before. Then again, nor had I until my son used it - to describe those self-same tearaways in baseball caps who were stomping up and down my stairs at the time.
Since then the word has come into more general usage. There have been a string of high-profile articles in the national newspapers about the phenomenon, not least a half-page spread in the Evening Standard. “Chavs” and “chavvies” have emerged into the public consciousness at last.
Just to get this clear, chavs are a new youth group. You will have seen them about. They wear baseball caps, hooded tops, cheap jewellery and branded sportswear with – for some reason – their tracksuit bottoms tucked into their socks. Don’t ask me why they do this. Maybe it’s because most of them are so young that the only vehicles they are likely to possess are their BMX bikes. Obviously bicycle clips are not considered cool.
Meanwhile my local paper refers to the same group of youths under another set of names: as “yobs” and “louts” and “thugs”, which is partially true, and partially not. What is true is that it is kids who are dressed like this who are often responsible for acts of random vandalism and intimidation on our streets. What is not true is that all young people are engaged in such anti-social behaviour.
Kids just like to gather, don’t they? And when they do, older people always find them intimidating.
The first question is: where does the name come from? What, exactly, does “chav” mean?
I’ve heard a few possible explanations. According to my landlord, it’s an old London word, meaning something like “mucker” or “mate”, as in “me old chavvie mate”. In other words, the chavs are describing themselves as friends. Another possible explanation is that it derives from the Medway town of Chatham, meaning that the chavs were originally Chatham natives. I’m not sure what this implies. Perhaps it means that Chatham deserves the same recognition as Haight-Ashbury or Notting Hill Gate, as a place where revolutionary youth cults are born.
Personally I think that every place deserves its recognition on the map. Why not Chatham too?
However, the most convincing explanation I’ve heard is that it is a Romany word meaning “child”. In other words, the word “kid”, which I used earlier to describe the youth, is an exact translation. Also, they may be addressing each other affectionately as “our kid”, in the way that Brummies and Scousers do.
I have several reasons for inclining to this derivation. Firstly, because Romany words are so popular these days. “Pukka” and “kushti” are examples of this. Secondly, one of the other words for chavs is “pikey”, which is a clear Gypsy reference. Thirdly, I have it on good authority from a Gypsy friend of mine that the very style is Gypsy in origin. Go to any Gypsy site and you’ll see the youth dressed in exactly this way. They’ve been dressing like this for years, she tells me, and, having visited her on a number of occasions, and seeing her constantly expanding brood, I see no reason to disagree with her.
It is this last possibility which intrigues me the most. Why, you wonder, are the youth identifying themselves with Gypsies, a group which Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Racial Equality describes as “probably the single most discriminated-against group in this country"?
And they are discriminated against, let’s be clear on that, not because they are racially much different from the rest of us, but because they are culturally different: because they choose to live in a different way. You only have to read your local paper to understand the degree of hatred the settled community has for their Gypsy neighbours, and many people who would be very wary about using racial epithets against black people, say, or people of Asian origin, have no such scruples when it comes to talking about “gypos” or “dirty travellers”, ascribing stereotypes to the community that, in another context, would be considered decidedly racist.
What is going on? On the one hand you have a bunch of youths dressed up as Gypsies, saying “pukka” and “kushti” and calling each other “chav”; and on the other, a settled community reaching peaks of hysteria whenever Gypsies roll on to a piece of land nearby, while, at the same time, fearing their own youth.
Possibly it is a measure of the times. And what is certainly true is that while house prices spiral ever upwards, and rural life degenerates into a sort of super-suburbia - with townies buying up all the available real estate, while clogging up the roads with their off-road vehicles - it is the Gypsies and the youth who are losing out. Hence the identification maybe. Hence the fear.
I think it was Janice Joplin who sang “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Maybe we should all take a little time to reflect on that.
Personally I believe that there is such a thing as psychic justice and that, consciously or otherwise, it is often the young who are the channels for it.
In other words, beware of what you hold on to. Sometimes it is the surest way of losing it.