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The comedian Simon Brodkin, as his loveable 'chav' character Lee Nelson

We live in troubled times. The international finance crisis has created increasing tensions between those who have a lot, and wish to keep as much of it as possible, and those who have very little and would appreciate some help. But this isn’t a new situation. Ever since civilisation first began (somewhere in the window of inventive zeal between the invention of fire and the invention of the tea set and the afternoon nap) there have been haves and have-nots, and language – like have and have-not, for example – evolved to help capture the simmering situation.

Naturally, because it’s an argument about possession, the language gets a bit heated at times. But for every stuck-up ponce there’s a hoi polloi, for every chav, there’s a toff. It all balances out in the end.

By which I mean the poshos always win. And here’s how they do it:

In The Great Unwashed Corner:

Well there’s no shortage of unpleasant slang bombs to lob down from a lofty perch is there? The rank and file (army talk applied to real life, in much the same way that I understand people who work in movies have taken to referring to people who don’t work in movies as muggles, which is just lovely, isn’t it?), plebeians (or plebs, in actuality a distortion of the old roman order. The original plebeians were a free, land-owning class, above slaves, y’know, men of good standing) , riff-raff (derives from the French rif et raf, meaning ‘one and all’) or the herd (MOO!).

Incidentally, in the internet age there are also expressions like sheeple, a portmanteau word fusing sheep with people, and used to describe anyone who, apparently unthinkingly, likes something which is popular. Usually a barb thrown by someone who feels their taste is above that of the masses. It’s as snotty as calling people the masses in the first place, and should be avoided.

Then there’s prole, which may have started out in George Orwell’s 1984 as a hopeful term for a fictional downtrodden underclass, ready to rise (it is derived from proletarius, the Roman term for the lowest social class, which was then appropriated by Karl Marx), but is now used, if used at all, exclusively to describe a very real downtrodden underclass in a derisive way. Language has no respect for literature.

In the past, laboring classes would be referred to as navvies – from navigator, often the Irish immigrants to England who built the railways and canals, and that word rubbed off a bit, so that it could be used as a general sneer in the direction of anyone of Irish descent, unless they’re actually building a railway. It sits alongside such gypsy-baiting terms as pikey, and diddicoy as racially sensitive, and hugely emotive words which should be avoided at all costs, even by Guy Ritchie.

Whereas hooligan, a word explicitly derived from an Irish surname and given to mean someone who is wilfully destructive and violent, probably egged on by their mates, appears to have slipped its racial roots and become rather gentlemanly and quaint. Bill Hicks memorably did a routine about the word being somewhat less scary than crip or blood to describe gang members, and yet that’s exactly what the original hooligans were.

Yobbo or yob suffers from the same problem. Only politicians and tabloid newspapers use it, because it’s an educated man’s word for an uneducated (and violent) person. For the people at whom it is aimed, yobbo is too snooty a word to work as a criticism. It’s like being called a yahoo, why should they care?

Nowadays the role of a catch-all term that means “you are less than I” has been fulfilled by chav, a word which proves that the idea of a classless society is as much a myth now as it’s always been. Despite numerous acronyms rushing to take credit for the word, people from the North East of England were using charva or charver to describe groups of poor young people in designer tracksuits long before the term spread southwards. And it’s a word that was a long time coming. In the North-West, around Liverpool, the term is scally, in Glasgow it’s ned, in Norfolk it’s yarco.

In America it’s poor white trash, and that’s how chav is used, as a weapon, hitting downwards.

Coming Soon: Class Wars Part 2 – Revenge of the Oiks

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Filed Under: Fraser's Phrases
By Fraser McAlpine