The British tabloids couldn’t get enough of it.  Photos of Prince William wearing multiple large gold chains, a baggy track suit, a baseball cap, and a menacing sneer on his face were splashed across their front pages.  To the British, it was immediately clear that the prince was dressed up as a “chav.”

Like most Americans, I had no idea what they were talking about when I first saw the photo.  Within weeks, however, I had my own personal encounter with two real-life chavs.  I was helping distribute campaign literature for a political candidate in the English town of Northampton.  A chav couple was leaving their house just as I was approaching.  Like a good volunteer, I immediately started to recommend my candidate to them.  They grabbed the opportunity to air their grievances against their county’s social services.  Apparently, the woman has had her two children taken away.  The two fathers of the two children are both convicted sex offenders.  She herself is a convicted felon, though she did not elaborate on that point.  Social services had discovered she was pregnant with her second child when she assaulted the baby’s father on the street.  Later on, she decided to be sterilized.  Now, however, she and her new partner wish to have a child.  Because both are unemployed, they are taking out a loan to have the sterilization reversed, and the woman certainly wants her two children back.  I kept nodding and politely agreed to pass their grievances along to the candidate.  Chav votes matter, too.

Chavs are the newest underclass in England.  The word chav usually refers to a younger person of working-class background who is poorly educated and engages in brash or antisocial, often criminal, behavior.  Chavs like to be identified by their clothing.  They don track suits from brand-name labels (real or imitation), particularly Burberry.  Men wear large white—sometimes called “prison white”—sneakers, preferably from Reebok.  Women wear miniskirts and stilettos.  Large, ostentatious jewelry is an essential part of any chav getup: gold pendants and hoop earrings for women; large gold rings, earrings, and multiple gold chains for men.  Men also wear baseball caps and hooded sweatshirts, often with the hood pulled up over the baseball cap.  Women sport the “council-estate [public housing] facelift”—a ponytail pulled back so tightly that it makes the forehead taut.

Chavs tend to be associated with low incomes and public housing, but they are also represented among the rich and famous.  Wayne Rooney, England’s highest-paid soccer player, is widely regarded as a chav.  So are model Jordan and soap-opera star Daniella Westbrook.  The jury is still out on whether Ali G is a chav.

My two experiences—seeing the photo of Prince William as a fake chav and meeting the two real chavs—show the dichotomy of the chavs’ place in England.  On the one hand, their tasteless sense of dress and way of life is an object of ridicule.  On the other, it cannot be denied that they represent a serious societal problem.

The word chav exploded onto England’s collective consciousness in 2004.  A book from the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary went so far as to select chav as “2004’s Word of the Year.”  (The previous year, that honor had fallen upon sex up, as in “I am going to sex up a dossier of intelligence on Iraq.”)

While the exact origin of the word is unknown, the most common explanation is that it stems from the old Romany word chavi for “child.”  Others say chav was originally a name for residents of the town of Chatham in Kent.  Still others hold that it is an acronym for the phrase “Council House And Violent.”

Chav has spawned any number of derivatives, including chavtastic, meaning “relating to a chav,” and chavmobile, meaning “a vehicle which has undergone showy alterations for aesthetic rather than practical reasons.”

Chavs love Burberry’s signature beige-red-and-black check pattern.  It has become a sort of shorthand for their lifestyle.  With their working-class incomes, of course, they prefer to buy cheaper imitations of the high-end label’s clothes.  At the same time, Burberry’s wealthier clients are scared away by the chav association.  Founded in 1856, Burberry outfitted the British army in World War I.  In 2004, declining sales forced the company to take drastic measures to reclaim its high-class image.  The first step was to discontinue their chav-adored baseball cap.  Burberry’s designers began relegating the check pattern to more subtle positions in the clothes, such as the lining of coats.  Burberry also threatened legal action when a line of cars painted in the Burberry-check pattern was named the Chavrolet.  Their lawyers intervened again when London police chose the name Operation Burberry for their crackdown on soccer hooliganism.

English culture is now awash with references to the chav lifestyle, including a complete arsenal of chav jokes.  How do you spot the bride at a chav wedding?  She is the most pregnant one.  What do you call a chav in a tastefully decorated home?  A burglar.

The love of flash and bling bling exhibited by chavs in their clothing has also been translated into their choice of baby names.  Recently, a scandal erupted when some teachers participating in various online discussion forums declared that they can tell who the chavs (i.e., the troublemakers) in their class are going to be simply by looking at a list of their names.  Some of the names the teachers considered to be chavtastic were: Alanna, Chantelle, Kylie, and Stacey for girls; and Chayse, Dwayne, Liam, Shane, and Wayne for boys.

This type of labeling and categorizing of chavs does not sit well in some circles.  Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik has said, “I do feel strongly that people who think this a genuine label are really only labeling themselves as snobs.”  Labour MP Stephen Pound agrees that this is just another example of “class snobbery.  What on earth is wrong with a bit of flash.  A bit of bling bling.  It keeps a lot of jewelers in business.”

Others see the chav label as something even more insidious.  They detect in it a form of racism that is permitted in the mainstream only because it is directed mostly toward whites.  Julie Burchill—columnist, filmmaker, and self-proclaimed chav—calls it “social racism.”  In an op-ed in the Times of London, Burchill points out that “the white indigenous English-working class is now the one group you can insult without feeling the breath of the Commission for Racial Equality on your neck.”

Chavs originated in England’s low-income working—now often unworking—class.  This population group has ballooned over the past few decades, mainly because of England’s “deindustrialization”—the outsourcing of factory jobs that began in the 1970’s.  The service-oriented economy that took its place requires much stronger personal and social skills, which are largely determined by one’s background.  Those who come from a working-class background, who have been educated in a failing school system, are at a distinct disadvantage.   Despite government attempts to address the disparity, this trend has only increased in recent years.  A study by the Institute for Public Policy Research estimated that, in the last decade alone, background became 33 times more important in determining life outcome in the United Kingdom.  This creates a vicious cycle of successive generations being unable to change their status in life.

Before the 1970’s, working-class people would have had structure built into their lives through their jobs, union meetings, and churches.  Today, those same people are often unable to find work and lack meaningful community activities in their lives.  This increases the likelihood of their turning to the sort of antisocial behavior exhibited by chavs.  Being a chav gives them a sense of belonging and solidarity.

Perhaps the greatest danger of labeling people as chavs is not so much that it is snobbish or even racist, but that it ignores the underlying problems facing the working class.  Calling someone a chav and expecting him to behave a certain way allows you to distance yourself from him and his ilk.  Fans of globalization who advocate moving factories abroad do not have to face the human cost of their actions.

Burberry is currently planning to move a factory from Wales to China, which will result in the loss of 300 Welsh jobs.  So, yes, discontinuing their baseball cap has helped them lose their chav image; however, by keeping their factory in the United Kingdom, Burberry might have done far more to address the root cause of the chav phenomenon.