From churl to chav: shaming the underclass

A new book suggests we enjoy ridiculing people at the bottom of the heap for everything: their accent, their behaviour and even their clothes. Often by using the word 'chav'.

When Matt Lucas in Little Britain performs his Vicky Pollard sketch, some of us probably feel a bit uncomfortable laughing at the 'yeah-but-no-but' antics of this tracksuit-clad foul-mouth.

But now one writer has put this portrayal of the poor and uneducated under the microscope, calling it 'the demonisation of the working class'.

In a new book, Owen Jones argues that widespread use of the word 'chav' to describe a subsection of society, and the routine ridicule that goes with it, shows that hatred and contempt are an integral part of the British class system.

'As inequality has widened it's a way of saying that the people at the bottom deserve to be there,' he said.

Polly Toynbee, a columnist in The Guardian, says chav is 'the vile word at the heart of fractured Britain,' and using it amounts to 'class abuse.'

Others claim it derives from the overwhelming trend for formerly working class families to see themselves as middle class, leaving what Mr Jones describes as a 'feckless rump' or underclass, from whom the upwardly mobile working classes want to differentiate themselves.

Earlier this year, a survey showed that 71% of Britons see themselves as middle class – a historically very high figure. During the research, BritainThinks, the polling firm, discovered the phrase working class was sometimes seen as a slur and even 'equated with other class-based insults such as chav.'

For most of our history, people at the bottom of the social heap have had a label. For example, in the Middle Ages the churls and villeins were the peasants on whose unpaid work every feudal lord relied to farm his crops and look after livestock. Those words have given us insults too – think of churlish or villainous.

By contrast, we like to think of today's UK as classless – we have left behind the era when it was automatic to label people according to their background, and predict their future based on their origins.

But not everyone has joined this well-educated, prosperous brave new world. Some are left out because of limited expectations and opportunities, and some choose to reject the rest of society's view that they should want to 'get ahead'.

Chavtastic

Vicky Pollard seems a safe target for mockery because she lacks brains, rejects education, and has fallen into a dead-end life of antisocial behaviour and teenage pregnancy.

But if someone uses the word 'chav,' are they naming a real phenomenon – the underclass that makes everyone else feel uncomfortable? Or just reassuring themselves with a feeling of moral superiority?

You Decide

  1. Have you ever called someone a chav? Has anyone used the word about you? Do you think it's an offensive word?
  2. The Labour MP Stephen Pound says most people would like to have fun and no responsibilities. 'Chav is an utterly misunderstood term. It is used in envy by the lily livered, privileged, pale, besuited bank clerk who sees people dressed up to the nines and going to the West End.' Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Street style has often fixed on a brand of clothing to express group identity: Burberry check is associated with the chav look. Research how other youth groups use clothes to show their allegiances.
  2. Using the links below, prepare a short presentation about 'the decline of the British working class'.

Some People Say...

“I'll laugh at whoever I want”

What do you think?

Q & A

Sounds as if this author is offended by the word?
He believes it's a smokescreen for hatred. He doesn't accept that people might use it to disapprove of antisocial behaviour.
But what do the 'chavs' themselves think?
Good question. Cheryl Cole used the term to describe someone from a working class background like her own who manages to get ahead. But it originated as a term of abuse, possibly from 'Chatham average' to describe people from the Kent town.
Not much point banning it if everyone uses it?
There's no likelihood of that. Some insults, like racial slurs, have over time become totally unacceptable. Others become commonplace – often through clever appropriation by the victims. Campaigners for gay rights have run worldwide campaigns to 'reclaim' the word 'queer', for example.

Word Watch

Underclass

This term first gained currency in the US during the 1980s to describe people cut off from the rest of society by their poverty, unemployment and other longterm difficulties. In the late 1990s Labour set up a 'social exclusion unit' to try and help and/or force them back into mainstream society.
Working class

Usually used to mean those on lower incomes, working in less skilled jobs, historically in manufacturing industry but now less so. Strict definitions equate it with those paid for their physical labour. Used in contrast to the middle or professional classes, or upper classes.
Shameless

Showing no feeling of shame about behaviour that should cause the person to feel that emotion. Shame is a burning sense of disgrace, reacting to how others see and judge you: scholars say ancient cultures kept people in line by encouraging fear of shame, but modern societies rely on people to feel guilt, a more private emotion.

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