An article in today's Guardian by Polly Toynbee takes aim at the word chav, describing it as a term of "acceptable class abuse by people asserting superiority over those they despise" and a word that is happily used by those who "would presumably never say nigger or Paki". She goes on to say that "wrapped inside this little word is the quintessence of Britain's great social fracture". It's strong stuff, and she argues the case passionately that there's much wrong with the word and of course the prejudices it might be seen to reflect.
It's not the first time that chav has been attacked. In this article, Zoe Williams argues that it's an unpleasant word but that attempts to ban it are silly. Meanwhile, Paul Flynn argues a case very similar to Polly Toynbee's that the use of the word reflects a sneering snobbery towards people with less money and fewer job prospects.
What's a little odd is that Toynbee is writing about this word in 2011, when chav really hit the mainstream around 6-7 years ago. But looking at the example she uses in her article it's fairly clear that for some people the word has now broadened from its fairly specific field of reference - young men and women sporting prison whites, fake burberry, sovereign rings and number 1's (or for the women, a Croydon facelift) - into a much wider reference to the wider working class. To some people, working class = chav, and vice versa.
In fact, that's part of Toynbee's argument: by conflating the entire working class (the majority of the country, in fact) with a small subset of it, it's easy for right wingers to write off a whole section of the population as lazy, feckless and feral, further dividing already fragmented communities.
The wider language point here is, I think, that if we aren't careful, some words drift from their original moorings and if we don't see this taking place we can't challenge it. It's the same with hoodies being used interchangeably for most teenagers or urban for black.
Language change is inevitable, but we can have some say in how far we feel it's appropriate for words to shift and we can exercise some control over challenging their meanings. If language is at least partly a reflection of social attitudes then there has to be some place for arguing about what these words mean to us and why they might be dangerous, and Toynbee's article is a good contribution to that debate.