Crikey! Here Come the Chavs

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Robert Siegel talks with Verity Jennings, a recent graduate of Leeds Metropolitan University in Britain. Jennings' thesis analyzed the popularity of the term "chavs" in hundreds of newspaper stories. While the origins of the word are murky, Jennings says "chavs" has come to refer to British young people characterized by gold jewelry and sportswear, often in a negative light. But she says references to "chavs" may also create a new sense of belonging.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From our British friends, we've learned of a word that has enjoyed so much currency there, it's made it into the dictionary and some lexicographers even declared it the 2004 Word of the Year, an honor bestowed on such 20th Century coinages as ad-lib, blitzkrieg, (unintelligible) and miniskirt.

The word is chav, C-H-A-V. One student of media and popular culture at Leeds Metropolitan University wrote a paper on the use of chav in newspapers to refer to particular class of young people. Ms. Verity Jennings has since graduated, but she joins us now from Leeds. Welcome to the program, Ms. Jennings.

Ms. VERITY JENNINGS (Former Student, Leeds Metropolitan University): Hi.

SIEGEL: First, the definition of the word chav.

Ms. JENNINGS: Well the dictionary definition that they ended up using was a young person, often without a high level of education, who follows a particular fashion.

SIEGEL: And that particular fashion, I gather, includes such things as a lot of bling, a lot of jewelry, sweatpants, that sort of thing?

Ms. JENNINGS: Yeah. It's branded sports logos, lots of gold jewelry, gold chains and rings, really white trainers. And the strange thing is you're sticking your trousers into your socks.

SIEGEL: Tucking your trousers into your socks.

Ms. JENNINGS: Yep.

SIEGEL: Does anybody know where the word chav actually originates from?

Ms. JENNINGS: There's been a lot of suggestions where it comes from. Apparently it came from Chatham in Kent, where the word's best known. And that's where it started off, cause originally these people had been all over the country but they were never known by like a national term. It was regional terms. Also chav is the Romany word, which is a gypsy word for child. Another is chavo, which is Romany for prostitute. So no one knows exactly where it came from, but these are the best definitions.

SIEGEL: Singular and plural, does one say, he is or she is a chav? Or they are, as a group, chav?

Ms. JENNINGS: They are chavs or he is a chav or chavettes has come up a few times.

SIEGEL: Not a really affectionate term, is it?

Ms. JENNINGS: No. I mean it does have so many negative connotations but then it also provides a sense of a belonging for young people and it's the same with youths that got it from the past. There's the mods and rockers and the punks. And at the time, the adult generation couldn't understand it, thought it was going to lead a decline in society completely. But things come and go.

SIEGEL: But, you know, mods and rockers and punks were associated, at least to some extent, with kinds of music. Chavs, chav?

Ms. JENNINGS: You have certain types of music that they listen to, like hard house. I don't know if you are aware of that kind of music. And it's generally sort of very electronic dance, fast beats, no vocals really.

SIEGEL: I can imagine it would be of some appeal to headline writers - chav on the tabloids - does it get into headlines?

Ms. JENNINGS: Oh, totally. The first mention of the word in the newspaper was in 2003 in a local paper. And then up to 2004 it was grabbing headlines. There was whole, like, features done on chavs and stuff like that. I've been out to interview famous chavs, cause there's celebrity chavs as well.

SIEGEL: Who are some celebrity chavs?

Ms. JENNINGS: We have Michael Carol in this country. He was a chav, basically, and he won the lottery. And there's been a lot of interest in him. He's someone I went and interviewed for the Sun newspaper. He's typically chav. He has a van that he's turned into the Chav-mobile. And he's written King of Chavs over the front and spent of his money on gold jewelry. And bought a house and then turned the back garden into a bang-a-car racing track. And it's typically chav.

SIEGEL: Can you think of any American popular culture figure who might not even know what the word means, but who might qualify broadly for being chav?

Ms. JENNINGS: Christina Aguilera came out on my contents and I see she only had a couple of mentions. But perhaps her style of dress and the songs that she's done. Like that Dirrrty song. That would be almost described as typically chav.

SIEGEL: Well, thank you so much for telling us about chavs and giving us some guidance on how not to be chav, I guess.

Ms. JENNINGS: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: It's Verity Jennings speaking to us from Leeds about the people who were the subject of her dissertation at Leeds Metropolitan University. Her dissertation was called Chavs: Subculture or Chavaphobia?

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