What is the meaning of the term "herbert" in British slang?

  • MaQleod

    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."

  • Answers
  • Alain Pannetier Φ

    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)
  • Kevin Lawrence

    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.

  • RegDwigнt


    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.

  • simchona

    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

  • Tim Palmer

    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.."

  • Brian Hooper

    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.

  • Gabriel Heiss

    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.

  • RegDwigнt

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

  • RegDwigнt

    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.

  • Zeboe

    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".

  • Thursagen

    "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"

  • Jay

    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".

  • Johnnie G

    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

  • David John Cottrell

    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.

  • Tim

    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.

  • RegDwigнt

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

  • Related Question

    Is the word "wotcher" British slang? What does it mean?
  • Mr. Shiny and New 安宇

    I was reading a Harry Potter book the other day and one of the characters greets Harry by saying "Wotcher, Harry".

    What is "Wotcher"?

  • Related Answers
  • b.roth

    Theory 1: It's a contraction of "what are you up to" or "what are you doing". Basically, the last part (up to/doing) is completely dropped, and the rest is smushed together.

    Theory 2: it's short for "what cheer", purportedly 17th century slang for "what's up".



    The MSN Encarta dictionary and freedictionary.com support Martha's second theory that wotcher is contraction of "what cheer". It is a slang (U.K.) that means the same as hello. It should be noted that it is not clear whether the slang is still in use anywhere in the U.K.

  • Iain Hallam

    As reported by others, "wotcher" (or, as I've seen elsewhere, "watcha") is a greeting that has been used for a long time in the UK. It is certainly still in use in North Kent, though in a rather more middle-class accent than in the East End.

  • Mehper C. Palavuzlar



    A colloquial greeting.


    'Wotcher' is so strongly associated with the south of England, and especially London, that it is often assumed to be Cockney Rhyming Slang. Some commentators have attempted to find tortured rhymes for the extended 'wotcher cock' slang form - 'what's your clock?', 'watch your back' etc. In fact, 'wotcher' long predates CRS and is a contraction of the earlier greeting phrase 'what cheer?'. In that form, it became part of the everyday English language in the early Middle Ages.

    Please read the related phrases.org.uk page for more info.

  • Write for the EL&U Community Blog! Slang words for body parts

    Two observations:

    1. The very first word of the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and

    2. I distinctly remember when the Brit soap opera "Eastenders" was introduced in the US, the host of the show explained what the term meant, because it was used in the show's dialog and American audiences needed to be educated about it. As an aside, British readers might be amused to know that PBS, which aired the series in America, was torn about whether to run the show with subtitles, as the East End accents (and some words like Nick Cotton's use of "blancmange") were difficult for Americans to process.