Is 'chav' a fair description of a modern-day youth sub-culture, or a snobbish attack on the white working classes? Sandra Dick investigates.
THE girls have flash designer clothes – probably hot off the counterfeit production line – enough bling to stock a branch of H Samuels and spray-on tans.
The boys, meanwhile, sport Burberry baseball caps, Lacoste tracksuits, white Reeboks and a cocky swagger.
They are, of course, chavs – but for goodness sake, don't dare say it, because chav now finds itself on the ever-growing list of politically incorrect taboo words and phrases that anyone with a social conscience never should be heard uttering.
At least that's what Tom Hampton, editorial director of left-wing think-tank the Fabian Society, says. He argues the word chav is "sneering and patronising", that it represents social discrimination and is motivated by middle-class disgust for anyone lower down the social scale.
Far from being a means of describing someone's fashion sense and attitude, the word, he believes, "betrays a deep and revealing level of class hatred".
Along with a growing band of like-minded commentators, he would like the chav discrimination to stop.
"It is sneering and patronising and – perhaps most dangerous – it is distancing, turning the 'chav' into the kind of feral beast that exists only in tabloid headlines," he declares.
"This is middle class hatred of the white working class, pure and simple."
So if you happened to think of chav as simply a word to describe a certain tier of society with a vulgar taste in fashion, gobby attitude and one Sovereign ring too many, then watch out – for using it could be about to become as offensive as calling someone with red hair 'ginger', someone with big bones 'fat' or a follicly-challenged gent 'baldy git'.
For according to Mr Hampton, uttering the word chav is as socially unacceptable and non-PC as the likes of faggot and pikey.
Is calling someone a chav, or for that matter a ned, really any worse than labelling youngsters mods or rockers in the sixties, describing ambitious high earners in the eighties as yuppies, or branding Marilyn Manson fans goths?
Or have Mr Hampton and the politically correct brigade actually got it spot on– by declaring someone a chav, are we really making a sweeping snooty comment about their social class.
Laura Midgley certainly sees no harm in branding the Burberry baseball cap brigade in their pimped-up hatchbacks and fake designer togs chavs, but then as the spokeswoman for the Campaign Against Political Correctness, she wouldn't, would she?
"I've heard the argument that this is a voiceless group we're offending and they need to be protected. Well I can think of plenty of groups of people who are voiceless – the elderly, the disabled, for instance. I don't think chavs are among them," she argues.
"There are words that are really socially unacceptable and offensive, but I don't think chav is the worst thing you can call someone and I've honestly never heard anyone complain about being called a chav. In fact, a lot of people seem to want to be one. It's like being part of a gang.
"What about calling someone a toff? Isn't that offensive? Shouldn't that be banned too, on the grounds it's singling out someone because of their class?"
Even if we all learn to avoid using the term to describe this sub-culture group of youths, it won't be the death of the chav, for according to Edinburgh University Professor of Sociolinguistics Miriam Meyerhoff, while there are plenty of words out there that have become taboo because of their strong negative connotations, they never really disappear.
"It's interesting that sometimes these words can be used by the people who are members of that particular group themselves – because within their own group it's not a derogatory term."
Arguing that the word widens the gap between the classes is off-beam too, she adds. "It's a fact of life that the middle class don't view the working class particularly positively – that's hardly new. OK, so there's a word for it now, but it's those attitudes that are objectionable, as opposed to what they call them."
While England seized on chavs, in Scotland we have their 'white trash' cousins, the neds, an expression which gained prominence in the seventies thanks to the TV series Crimedesk, with presenter Bill Knox regularly spitting out the word to describe petty criminals.
They're both sweeping stereotypes, agrees psychologist Cynthia McVey. She says: "
If you impose correctness or manage it through the law and force people to become afraid to say certain things, then it doesn't always work. It can make the situation worse and make the word even more attractive to some people.
"Besides, you can't really ban a word."