IT'S A word that defies definition but its mere mention guarantees groans of dismay.
Consisting of just four letters, it conjures up depressing images of a generation in crisis and general social meltdown.
"Chav" is the word in question and a number of helpful if unflattering theories suggest its true origins.
Some maintain the initials stand for Council House And Violent.
Then there's Council House Associated Vermin or the more succinct Cheap and Vulgar.
Alternatively, scholars of history may prefer its derivation from the Romani "chavi", meaning "child", while linguists might opt for the Spanish "chaval", or lad'.
It has also been suggested that snooty pupils at Cheltenham Ladies' College used the world to describe the younger men of the town - the "Cheltenham average".
Whatever your preference, chavs are, rightly or wrongly, inextricably linked to moral decline and suffocating social malaise.
Look no further than the Daily Echo's letters pages for typical chav-linked accusations of disorder.
Or consider the following comments: "On the bus you can see from a safe distance the smashed bus stops, glass everywhere, and bins burnt by last nights congregation of lowlifes and their activities. Unruly, uncouth little oiks as young as ten spurting foul-mouthed tirades at their friends and other customers before they are either thrown out and get bored and decide to go and vandalise yet another bus stop. Can someone tell me where the blatant disregard for normal social interaction comes from? Society appears to be capitulating."
These remarks can be found on a website monitoring "chav activity" across the UK - and these are the Southampton observations.
And, reports the site, Southampton is right up there at number nine in Britain's top ten chav locations, with Croydon topping the dubious poll.
The chav, and his female cohort the chavette, has become a convenient cultural scapegoat, a branded uneducated stereotype and source of all known social ills.
Obsessed with American hip hop fashions, the chav remains firmly associated with those other current-day soundbites of a subclass - the "Asbo generation", "hoodie culture" and "yob culture."
It's all been great fodder for comedians, tabloids and satirists.
The nation laughed its socks off at the antics of Lauren "Am I bovvered?" Cooper, and even Tony Blair used the catchphrase for the benefit of Comic Relief.
And while chav defenders robustly reject criticism as derogatory snobbery and social racism, it's all been played out to a suitable soundtrack courtesy of The Streets, Lily Allen and Just Jack.
Of course none of this is new.
Youth has always spawned its own pearly kings and queens of working class London dressed to impress in much the same way as the bling-covered youngsters of today.
Similarly, each disaffected generation has wallowed in social problems peculiar to their own time, whether it be the social upheavals that accompanied the Industrial Revolution or the mass unemployment that followed when the coal and steel industries collapsed between the world wars.
But are the social problems surrounding the chav generation cause for particular concern?
Technology and communications are now progressing at warp-speed which, some commentators believe, will leave growing numbers of young, uneducated people redundant in an increasingly competitive and polarised world.
Beyond the humour of Vicky Pollard and Little Britain, it is feared an entire tier of society is steadily being left behind - and left to their own devices.
Academics already point to the sobering experience of east London, which arguably represents the challenges confronting every UK metropolis. Here the old docks imploded, throwing a post-war generation on the jobs scrap heap. What replaced the old wasteland was a shimmering new city of glass and steel at Canary Wharf to confirm the capital's status as one of the world's premier financial hubs. Yet while the skilled and qualified rush to work, they step over the dispossessed crouched in doorways where Dr Barnardo first found them in the 19th century.
In short, one of the richest places on earth has been created amid one the most deprived boroughs in Britain.
It could be argued a smaller-scale version can already be glimpsed in Southampton, where affluent areas exist side-by-side with those wrestling with social problems.
The danger, the argument goes on, is that the post-chav generation will steadily find it impossible to enter the citadels of wealth.
If the world spins faster still, will the wealth gap become a yawning chasm?
John Davis, senior sociology lecturer at Portsmouth University, says the problem of lawless youth and antisocial behaviour has been a perennial theme throughout the ages. The term hooligan, he points out, was coined in the 1890s.
However, our current obsession with celebrity and consumerism could, he warns, be having a particularly corrosive effect on our society.
"Today's young people have to deal with the rise of celebrity and a consumer culture.
"We live in a very materialistic culture with a great emphasis on what you wear and what you own as a means of defining yourself. People who have a lot of money are paraded around and poorer people are exposed to this in a way they haven't been in the past. This could have worrying consequences for society.
MARGINALISED "In the worst-case scenario we could become socially divided," he says. "In 50 years' time we could have 70 or 80 per cent of the population who are living comfortably and the rest completely marginalised.
"This could lead to a rise in crime with some parts of the city becoming no go' areas where policing just doesn't work.
"We already have sections of the population living in low quality housing and inner city areas that are racially divided.
"But we as a society have the power to prevent this sort of division happening. The Government has already identified the problem and introduced social inclusion' policies to try and tackle it."
In any case evolutionary theorist Oliver Curry reckons it's only a matter of time (some 100,000 years to be precise) before the human race splits up into two different species, as predicted by H.G Wells - one a superior genetic upper class, the other an inferior and ugly underclass. Rubbish, of course. Or is it?
Almost 700,000 cosmetic operations will be performed in Britain this year at a cost of £539m. A beauty gap could therefore accompany the wealth gap, leading to what some futurologists have called a "cosmetic underclass" of those destined to look their age in an era of eternal youth.
There is, of course, an alternative to this scenario. By then cosmetic surgery could be so cheap that everyone can afford to look perfect, resulting in flawless humankind devoid of individuality.
A backlash may follow and a desire to look distinctly ugly - with perhaps a dash of Burberry to complete a refreshing new look.