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In the song Get Out of My House by The Business, the chorus is:

Out, out get out of my house, you'd better take your sheepskin too
no son of mine's going round as a hippie
or a scruffy little herbert like you.

What does the term herbert mean?

I found this definition here, but it doesn't make sense to me in the context of the song:

Noun. An dull objectionable person. E.g. "He's a real herbert, he watches the news and weather on TV all day."

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17 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I've looked up the entry in several slang dictionaries and there seem to be at least two meanings.

  • When applied to children, that of silly and poorly educated with a whiff of mischievousness.
  • When applied to adults, that of foolish and/or ridiculous.

Below are my sources, cited in extenso.

Oxford Dictionary of Slang (1998)

’erbert n British
A foolish person, a cheeky, unwashed child. For many years, in London working-class slang, Herbert or ’Erbert was used to refer to any otherwise unnamed man or boy. Gradually, probably by being used in phrases such as ‘silly ’erbert’, it came to have the more pejorative sense. There probably never was an eponymous Herbert; it was merely a common working-class name from the Edwardian era.

The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2008)

herbert noun
 1. a mischievous child or youth. Quite often heard as ‘little herbert’ UK, 1999.
 2 a harmless youth; a ridiculous man. An extension of the previous sense UK, 1960.
 3 a man in a specified field of endeavour UK, 1956

John Ayto Oxford Dictionary of Slang (1998)

Herbert (1960) British;
applied to a foolish or ridiculous man ; arbitrary use of the male forename
T. Barling: A dozen baby-brained herberts looking to face me off just to say they squared up to Kosher Kramer before the cobbles came up a bit smartish. (1986)
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My father used to use the phrase you 'orrible little 'erberts quite often. In my neighbourhood it was a fairly common epithet.

It was certainly meant to be derogatory but it was about the mildest level of abuse imaginable. It implies mischief or naughtiness, not diminished mental abilities. It certainly does not mean dull. Rascal or scallawag might be close synonyms.

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Oi!

All the answers regarding "old English" usage are correct. However the key here is in the use in a song by The Business who were/are a key pillar of the 80s Skinhead Oi music movement. The term "Herbert" was used to describe those who were not punks or skinheads. It is (as per the original meaning) meant to be slightly derogatory but not at the same level as calling someone a hippie or a BOF (boring old fart). Herberts are tolerated but not admired. Oi Oi Oi.

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If I recall correctly, the Toy Dolls dedicated one of their fine early albums to (inter alia) "all the Herberts," which seemed very sporting of them. –  Sven Yargs Feb 26 '13 at 23:06
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Growing up just north of London in the late 70s a "little erbert" was the sort of kid likely to nick stuff from the local shop or vandalize a phone box, probably looked like a skinhead (as a lot of kids did at that time). I think this meaning fits the context of the song a lot better. eg "oi, which one of you little erberts smashed my window.."

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According to this site of Cockney slang, a slang definition for herbert is:

Herbert - a foolish person

This site agreed, adding that the term is

used to describe a foolish person or as a mild form of abuse. Normally prefixed by 'spotty'.

This would make sense in context of the lyrics, since the singer would be saying

No son of mine will be a hippie... or a scruffy little fool like you

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"as a mild form of abuse" seems to be the relevant part of the second definition. –  Charles May 22 '12 at 17:49
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According to Green's Dictionary of Slang, Herbert means "a simple person". But I don't think that's right. When I use the expression Herbert, I mean a moderately ill-behaved boy, one who plays knock-down ginger rather than one who shoplifts, for example.

Thus, I agree with Kevin Lawrence.

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Out, out get out of my house, you'd better take your sheepskin too no son of mine's going round as a hippie or a scruffy little herbert like you".

That's the second chorus, the first is "...no daughter of mine's going OUT with an hippie, or a scruffy little herbert like you".

In the U.S., I've always heard the term thrown around in subculture circles to mean a skinhead with grown out hair or "near-skin", or someone between a skin and a punk(skunk).It's also in American Oi! banf Anti-Heros' song Herbert Moonstomp.

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"Little herberts". Heard this yesterday as applied to inmates of local borstal; a parent at work described it as applying to mischevous child (Surrey).

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Growing up in Surrey during the 70s/80s my dad regularly called me a Herbert/spotty little Herbert/'orrible little Herbert etc, and I now do the same with my two sons. He grew up in south London so may have its origins there. Its always been used as a very mild derogatory term but with affection attached - the sort of language you use when your little darlings have been playing with your car wing mirrors, or get covered in mud, or such like. Another cultural reference nobody has yet mentioned: Arctic Monkeys - Favourite Worst Nightmare album - D is for Dangerous, opening verse - "The dirty little Herbert".

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My dad regularly uses the expression "playing silly herberts" synonymously with "messing around", although I think it might be his invention. He was born in Taunton to a Cockney-ish father and a Guildfordian mother in 1963, and spent a lot of his childhood in Camberley, Surrey, if that means anything to anyone.

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'Herbert', or 'Erbert' was a name called to me all my childhood by my mother and father, it was not meant in a nasty way, but affectionately described my mates and me, it meant a mischievous, street kid. we were always up to no good, but in the mildest form, having bonfires up the woods, ghost knocking, stuff like that. if you did higher level or antisocial behaviour, you became a yob, above that, if using violence a thug. i was also called 'Erbert Noggs' i don't know where that comes from, but being on the edge of London, its all working class London Slang, which sadly will probably be lost forever, due to the communities no longer in London itself. It was used in Oi! songs to describe street kids that were not skinheads or punks, but hung around in the gang.

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"Herbert" is a mild form of abuse meaning a silly, or dim-witted person. The origin of this term seems to be that it was derived from the name Herbert, which meant "bright." It was used in the very direct opposite, to mean dumb.

I found this definition here, but it doesn't make sense to me in the context of the song:

It makes sense, as he is calling the person a "dim-witted person". He says "My son is not going round as a hippie(weirdo) or as a dim-witted person, which you are"

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Once again, I'm asking for evidence of the derivation you propose. That "Herbert" comes from the name is not in doubt, but I simply don't believe that the original meaning of "Herbert" (Her-beorht = "army bright") is in any way connected, simply because in 1925 (which was when the OED first records the word in that sense) this meaning had not been evident in nearly a thousand years. I believe that the reason is that even by the 1920's the name "Herbert" had acquired connotations of being a but dull and slow. –  Colin Fine Aug 12 '11 at 12:12
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Huh. As an American, the only use of "Herbert" as an insult that I ever heard was from the original Star Trek series, where a group of futuristic hippies use the word as an insult for Captain Kirk. Later Spock tells them, "I am not Herbert", which apparently is the future equivalent of "I'm cool, bro".

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Herbert or 'erbert is London (hence the Dropped aitch) for Skallywag. It is not a term for non skinheads or simpletons or any of the other 'I just read it on the interweb So it must be true' answers above. For evidence see The Cockney Rejects greatest Hits vol2 and the dedication bottom left. My Grandad called my dog a cheeky Herbert, my Dad called me a scruffy Herbert when I didnt get my hair cut between 1974and 76 and my boss called my Son 'erbert first time I took him in The office and he posted pens into the (then new) fax machine. Always Used as a mild rebuke or affectionate nickname. John aged 49+1 month all of which spent in Yer actual London

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My first recollection of the term employing 'Erbert was from my father, a Cockney. However, the most common recollection comes from "The Goon Show" when Bluebottle was often called a "...spotted little 'erbert."

David J. C.

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Just watched the Americas cup on Youtube (race 13) where the commentator called a snagged sheet (rope pulling a sail) a Herbert. I have not found any other reference to its use in this way elsewhere.... Sounds good though.

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From usage I would say a spotty-faced Herbert is a teenager who is mischievous, lacking in maturity.

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