Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Hand-wringing about 'chavs'

John Harris argues that the demonisation of 'chavs' has reached 'epidemic levels' and takes this as evidence that we are increasingly American in outlook - this being our very own version of the Yank expression 'white trash':
"What that says about modern Britain seems pretty straightforward. How else to understand it than as more evidence of our embrace of an increasingly American social model, in which there is opportunity for all - apart from the undeserving rump too feckless to seize it? In short, we've finally acquired our own equivalent of that dread term "white trash"."
There may be something in this. I personally hate the Americanism 'loser', a painfully simple term used to denote one who loses economically. And if there's anything more depressing than imagining what a 'meritocracy' would look like, it's having a conversation with unsympathetic human beings who imagine we live in one now.

On the other hand, methinks Mr Harris wrings his hands too much because while expressions like 'chav' or 'underclass' may be relatively new, in Britain the attitudes behind them certainly are not.

The Victorians distinguished between the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving' poor. William Booth used the expression 'residium' in much the same way people use 'underclass' today and in case anyone thinks only hard-faced capitalists or muscular Christians made this distinction, it should be remembered that it was Marx that distinguished between the proletariat and the lumpenproletariat and that of the latter he took a rather dim view of.

Whereas I wonder if it isn't John Harris's view that is the novelty in social history because whereas before Marxists railed against the injustice of capitalism, this didn't stop them from condemning bad behaviour, whereas today I think most leftists lack the confidence, worried, perhaps, of attracting that dread epithet - conservative. Take this for example, where Harris describes pupils' responses to his mother writing the word 'chav' on a white board:
"Chavs, the students said, are in the habit of "causing trouble, hanging round the streets, drinking and taking drugs". They are "working class, they live in council houses". Their parents "don't care, and they don't work"."
Hmmm, I'm sure the class in question was fairly obnoxious, unsympathetic, and lacked imagination for the plight of those less fortunate than themselves. But hey, they're teenagers. And the fact remains that we do have a problem in many of our cities with young people hanging around, causing trouble and taking drugs. Object to the terms 'chav', 'neds', the use of 'working class' in this context (you should, since it's obviously being used inaccurately) if you will but I don't quite get this contemporary notion that you demonstrate your liberal credentials by pretending this isn't happening.


KB Player said...

Some definitions:-

"Loser" - does that mean someone who is merely poor? Are people like janitors and rubbish collectors called losers? I always thought that it applied to types who sat about smoking spliffs and talking about how they could have been contenders.

"Ned" - isn't that narrowly applied to young and intimidating blokes out on the town? Are there any neds beyond the age of 25?

"Schemie" - is that an Edinburgh term only? Can be applied to both sexes and all ages. Is used by some people who live in housing schemes about other people who live in housing schemes. Means noisy and abusive and ill-behaved person, often drunk or on drugs. A distinctive nasal accent, much imitated.

dearieme said...

Is "keellie" still used?

Shuggy said...

"Schemie" - is that an Edinburgh term only?

Hmmm, think so. Certainly haven't ever heard it in Glasgow.

David Duff said...

As the Language Commissars refuse to understand, "It ain't what you say, it's the way that you say it!"

KB Player said...

Just done a search and it's spelt "schemey" not "schemie". Of course we Embro folk think all yi weegies are schemeys.

Dearieme:-where does "keellie" come from?

Uncle Joe said...

Apart from heroin the main problem drug is alcohol.

dearieme said...

Keellie (?keelie, ?keely...)was a Glaswegian wastrel/thug. Perhaps a 30s expression, but I'd have heard it still in use in, say, the late 50s.

Anonymous said...

If you're schemey it simply means you come from a scheme, and are perhaps attributed with having some of the less attractive aspects of people from schemes, like a broad accent or an unsophisticated outlook. Sometimes us schemies use this term about ourselves in relation to other people's view of us, eg., I always suspected that my former mother-in-law thought I was much to schemey for her son. The term is certainly not limited to Edinburgh. I think of schemies as coming from Easterhouse, Pollock, etc... No insult intended.

Anonymous said...

One school of thought sees keelie derived from ghillie, Gaelic for servant, there being always a fair number of the Gaelic diaspora in the dear green place. This etymology may not be correct;I can't remember where I read it, but it sounds plausible [they always do.]

james higham said...

On the other hand, methinks Mr Harris wrings his hands too much because while expressions like 'chav' or 'underclass' may be relatively new, in Britain the attitudes behind them certainly are not.

This comment is right on the money.

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