Chav

In England there is a word “chav”, which according to Google means:

a young lower-class person typified by brash and loutish behaviour and the wearing of (real or imitation) designer clothes.

Interested in the origin of this word I did some research. The word comes from the Romany words “chavo” and “chavvy”, which mean boy/child. There is also a suggestion that it links to the place name “Chatham” (in Kent). Wikipedia says:

 There is no connection between its current use and its historical use in Romany history

quoting this article as its source. The article, published on the BBC, doesn’t in fact support the claim in Wikipedia, it merely suggests that it has been:

reactivated it in recent times

The OED lists the first reference as a Usenet forum in 1998. I grew up in Kent (not that far from Chatham) in the 90s and I am sure I remember this word being around before 1998. I remember having a conversation with my mother about my indiscriminate use of the word “chav” and the word “pikey“; she was keen to point out the difference: A pikey is a gypsy.

To me (and my brother) the difference between a chav and a pikey wasn’t obvious – they looked the same, they dressed the same, they spoke the same, which is undoubtedly a sign of our ignorance, but perhaps it also explains how this Romany word made a leap from the Romany word for boy, to its modern usage.

Let me try to paint the picture in more detail, which trying to avoid defaming gypsies, who I have a lot of respect for. The modern day “chav” seems to take a lot of things from what is perceived to be gypsy culture; lots of gold jewelry, a big brash attitude, a very strong regional accent, a lack of education and a disregard for the law.

Please note at this point that I am giving my understanding of some of the prejudices that existed in the culture I grew up in, I am not saying that these things are true.

It is really interesting that the word chav was misappropriated from the Romany word for boy, in order to describe a new culture that was in many ways trying to imitate. Firstly, many gypsies are of a Romany origin, so it is likely that they would know this word and use it among themselves. I wonder if the word actually comes from its use as an adjective – “chavvy”, which may have been used to mean “childish”. I can see it taking a leap from this use by gypsies themselves, to others like myself, taking it on but misunderstanding it to mean “gypsyish”. I certainly remember “chavvy” being used as a pejorative term, although by the time it reached me it definitely had connotations of “poor” and “classless”.

Another interesting detail – I met my wife in 1998, and she grew up in the West Midlands. She had never heard of the word before meeting me, which leads me to suspect that this word had its origins in Kent.

What’s the earliest you remember this word? Did you grow up in Kent?