A recent list of American (well, North Carolinian) university student slang includes the word chav, defining it as:

CHAV - working class boor. From British slang. "“This club used to be nice, but now it's full of chavs."

I find this borrowing of the British term a bit sad, since it necessarily involves some semantic shift or drift. It's not so much that I'm against linguistic change and borrowing, but chav describes a very particular social phenomenon, which is generally not found in the same way in the US--with the notable possible exception of Britney Spears. The word becomes less useful if it just refers generally to 'working class boors'.

Britain, on the other hand, does not have exact equivalents of the American phenomena rednecks, trailer trash or wiggas, although there are overlaps between the latter two and chavhood.

A key difference between the US and UK social stereotypes is their relation to race and class issues. The US categories all implicitly or explicitly reference race--rednecks are whites who stereotypically have racist attitudes, trailer trash is a subcategory of white trash, and wiggas are (typically/originally upper middle class) whites who emulate 'urban black' styles. While chavs are generally white, and while their style and slang often echoes an 'urban' Black American aesthetic (e.g. bling), the relationship is less direct than for wiggas. Football (AmE: soccer) also plays a heavy role in chav style, whether in emulation of favo(u)rite players (or their wives), or in the display of football-nationalistic symbols (e.g. England team wear). Click here for a football-themed post on World Cup words.

Chavhood is also associated with Gypsydom, although more through shared stereotypes than actual lineage. The word itself is thought to be Romany in origin (see Michael Quinion's excellent site), and pikey, an offensive word for Gypsies (or Travel(l)ers, a preferred term in Britain), is often used as a synonym for chav.


  1. I think a semantic shift for American usage is probabaly required. The social conditions you describe that are peculiar to the word simply don't exist in the same form in American culture. That being said, the entry may not be evidence for broadening, but rather is simply vague, possibly for the sake of conciseness. The example is also not too helpful.

    In any event, it is sad, considering the nature of the word. I wonder how widespread it is and what the vector for the borrowing could be? Exchange students? Da Ali G Show?

  2. Not being in the US, I haven't got any clues as to how chav came to the student consciousness there, but Ali G sounds like a good guess...

  3. You're probably right, Grant. I may have prematurely mourned the semantic vigo(u)r of chav!

  4. I'm pretty certain Grant is exactly dead on. Out of curiousity, for a follow-up entry I tried Googling or otherwise looking up a couple of the words that just seemed wrong to me and at least one is just a complete "stunt word" (legice).

    The list really is just a straight compilation of what the student's wrote down and a quick glance over the list shows and some investigation shows it.

  5. alternative words for chav: scally (scallies, scall) or scrout. Used in the North west of England (Manchester).

  6. Awful to see that hideously offensive word replicated anywhere, I've got to say - let's hope it really is a one-off. I'd be really depressed to imagine that any of our unpleasant class terms were spreading abroad.

  7. When my husband was growing up in Dorset in the 1940s, "chavvy" was common regional slang for "child". (Presumably from the Romany.)

    He freely used "chavvy" in this sense right up until the word "chav" came into general use.

  8. Couple of observations, though this post is now very old. I recently wrote an essay for uni on 'the image of the tramp in interwar England' and while reading some of the stuff on tramps (I'm pretty sure it was Orwell's Down and Out...) I read that tramps use 'chavvy' to mean a child, as someone said above.
    As an exiled Manc (Mancunian) I disagree slightly with Anonymous' claim that chav and scally are synonymous. Firstly, chav only started being said in Manchester around 2005/6 when the word and the concept exploded into the media. Mancunians (some) started saying chav purely because it was all over the media. It was therefore a word used in a derogatory way much more frequently than scally - a chav is a character in the media, a Catherine Tate or Little Britain stereotype, whereas a scally just might be someone who you went to primary school with. There's more distance and 'us and them' to chav.
    I don't want to romanticise the use of scally of course, it can be and often is derogatory, (similarly, 'all the bars on Thomas Street are full of scallies these days') but I think it can be used a little fondly ('I love seeing Man City play in London, and mixing with all the Manc scalls with their familiar accents.') The latter remark is very personal admittedly.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)