More British slurs

A follow-up to yesterday’s posting on “oiks, yobs, and prats”, about British social slurs, especially in the tv series Midsomer Murders: Facebook comments from John Wells (on the slurs in my posting, plus chav) and Don Steiny (on the status of cunt in British (also Australian) English).

Two comments from John Wells:

[W1] The satirical mag Private Eye depicted David Cameron (Eton, Oxford) as referring to Michael Gove, then a cabinet minister, now branded the betrayer of Boris Johnson in the Conservative succession fight, as “Oik” because of his slightly humbler origins.

[W2] All three slurs are familiar terms I am too well brought up to use against anyone [John says, owlishly]. “Yobbo” is a somewhat milder term for a lout. “Chav” is loaded with class prejudice.

W1 notes a prominent feature of class perceptions in Britain: very small distinctions can put you on the wrong side of the class line, and the class lines can be fiercely defended, to separate PLU (People Like Us, as a haughty Midsomer Murders character explained to the detectives) from the underclass horde.

W2 introduces the dimension of the User of these slurs — just as important as their Targets (and the Contexts of use). Well-brought up middle-class people aren’t officially supposed to use the slurs: that would be coarse. But of course, they often do, to revile the working class. Meanwhile, the upper class are allowed the privilege of insulting their inferiors (if not to their faces, then when they’re out of earshot).

And in W2 John broaches the slur chav (which, so far as I can tell, doesn’t sppear in Midsomer Murders). Bear in mind that the social categories and labels are exquisitely bound to particular times, places, communities of users, and contexts, and consider Green’s Dictionary of Slang on chav, with its extraordinary internet quote:

chav (also charver) [? Rom. chavi, a child] 1 a working-class youth, esp. if particularly brash, often wearing sportswear and/or designer labels; occas. with implication of petty criminality; oral use is attested in north-eastern England post. c. 1990. [First cite: 2004 [Internet] Chavs, Neds, Townies, Kevs, Charvers, Steeks, Spides, Bazzas, Yarcos, Ratboys, Kappa Slappers, Skangers, Janners, Stigs, Scallies, whatever you know them as, this site is about them. Britains peasant underclass that are taking over our towns and cities!

and note the sense of threat, even moral panic.

(An entertaining mythetymological note: several people have proposed an acronymic source for chav: Council House And Violent. Ingenious but preposterous.)

Many commenters have seen chavs as a social counterforce, elevating aspects of working-class life to an ethos. From the Bangs & A Bun site, “The Chav: An Explanation” (by Muireann Carey-Campbell):

A working class people, Chavs have an intense dislike of anyone who finished high school or, God forbid, actually chose to go to university. Education is their enemy. Their time is much better spent getting involved in extreme acts of delinquency; harassing/assaulting ‘posh twats’ (i.e., anyone who doesn’t live on a council estate, shop at JD Sports or holiday in Majorca), public drunkenness, hanging around on street corners ‘protecting’ their turf, that kind of thing. ASBOs (Anti-Social Behavior Orders) were basically invented to control Chavs, keep them out of the public eye. But instead, they pretty much embraced the ASBO as a badge of honor.

Chavs are easily identifiable through their unique fashion choices:

– Jewelry; mainly multiple chains and sovereign rings, all imitation gold of course.

– Reebok Classics; the Chav trainer of choice.

– Lacoste T shirts; fake again (the unemployment cheque doesn’t stretch far enough for a real one)

– Adidas track pants; the kind that are elasticated at the bottom, so you can see the Reebok Classics better.

– Polyester; any Chav wardrobe is made up of anywhere between 65-90% unnatural fibers.

And of course, the Chav Haute Couture; Fake Burberry.

There’s even a book of socio-political criticism:

On to cunt (which also, apparently, does not appear in Midsomer Murders, in any of its uses). Like many Americans, Don Steiny was somewhat startled to discover cunt being used in Britain (largely by men) as an all-purpose slur, applicable to men (perhaps preferentially so) as well as women.

From Green’s on cunt: ME but taboo since 15C. 1 the vagina … 4 a fool, a dolt, an unpleasant person of either sex; a general term of abuse.

There are cites in sense 4 from the 1920s on, nearly all British, many used of men. For instance: 2004 The boy called him five kinds of fucking cunt.

This use isn’t sexual, but it is still coarse, though generally acceptable in joking interactions between male companions. Otherwise, it seems to be fairly strong (and might still preserve some tinge of its origin in insulting a man by treating him as a women), which would explain its absence from Midsomer Murders.

(Note: It’s pretty much guaranteed that different people will have different conditions of use for non-sexual cunt, so all generalizations must be understood as approximations.)

When cunt is used of a woman, it can be hard to tell whether the insult is sexual (roughly similar to slag or slut) or merely generic (along the lines of idiot or asshole).

When used by a man of another man, things would seem to be clearer — unless, of course, the user is an American gay man, in which case we get a wide range of figurative senses, both generically insulting and sexual. From Green’s:

7 (US gay) a term of address, used archly as an affectionate derog. term. [cite 1949]  8 (US gay) the mouth or rectum as a sexual receptacle. [cites 1965 on]  9 (US gay) the buttocks. [cites 1967 on]

Gay bonus: a bit of gay bitchery from The Boys in the Band (1970), Michael to Donald:

Donald, you are a real card carrying cunt.

3 Responses to “More British slurs”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    The French use con similarly.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Two more specifically British slurs much used by characters on Midsomer Murders: wanker and tosser, both originally referring to masturbation, though only the former is now so used. Green’s notes that tosser is used only for ‘a despicable, worthless person’ and not for ‘a masturbator’. In this, it’s much like the AmE noun jack-off (though the reference is not quite parallel in the two cases).

    • Robert Coren Says:

      And of course the alternative “jerk-off” is the origin of modern “jerk”, which has lost its sexual/offensive roots (as has “dork”, originally slang for “penis”).

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