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?

3 responses to “Chav”

  1. two quick thoughts (because I’ll get carried away otherwise) – Chav was in use in the early 1990’s certainly in an oral history sense, the rise of the ‘Burberry Culture’ helped that get started. Also we are supposed to have some Romany blood (oh the romance) in the family via the female line. Your great, great Grandmother, supposedly left ‘her people’ to marry an outsider, and would occasionally meet with them again when they were camped near to where she lived with my Nan and the rest of the family in Tottenham. Sally would be able to tell you more as she’s really the family historian.

    Welcome to the wood burning club by the way, the stove looks great. Had my fire for about 10 years now and would dearly love to be able to get off grid as much as possible when i move in the near future. Thinking of taking advantage of all the grants for the insulation and technology when I move. Then again I’d also love to build my own place out of straw bales but finding appropriate plots I can afford, dealing with the red tape on my own etc etc.


      • There was some discussion about the word being a racist epithet, although I don’t think that the gypsy/Romany origin of the word was foremost in most peoples minds. It seemed to be about tasteless conspicuous consumption originally and then became a catch all description for people who were seen as ‘less than’.

        Love the Lammas idea, this sort of development on brownfield sites near or in urban areas would be my preferred way of providing housing stock in a more ‘human’ way. Development needs to grow naturally not be imposed. I’ve often wished I’d investigated architecture at college, although I’m not sure I could have put up with some of the other students. What’s an equivalent word for chav for the upper class?


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