Today’s britishism that threw me for a loop was from a television review in the Grauniad wherein Stuart Jeffries refers to two characters as “a couple of modern-day herberts”. What are these herberts of which he speaks?

I gather from an entry on the English Language and Usage Stack Exchange that (a) I’m just not going to get full connotations on a website, am I, and (2) there’s a connotation that herbert may imply a measure of mainstream conformity, at least in some contexts. I think the Wiktionary entry bears that connotation out, although not clearly. In the television show being reviewed, the characters described as herberts seem to be the straight men, as it were, the normal folk off of whom the bizarre comic characters can bounce their outrageousness. That makes sense to me, with a sense that a fellow who goes by Herbert is probably a bit dull. I can’t call to mind many famous men who went by Herbert—There are Herbs (Cain, Alpert, Tarlek) and Berts (Convy, Blyleven, Lahr) but most recent really famous Herbert that I can think of is Hoover.

On a side note, I would think that the connotations of first-name slang, particularly derogatory slang, would change pretty frequently. I have some vague sense of what is currently meant by Chad or Becky, although I have more of a sense of what was meant by Toby or Molly two hundred and fifty years ago. I suppose molly is something else now. I don’t know what a toby would be these days, or what a becky might have been in 1770. I really doubt that whatever Mr. Jeffries is alluding to by herberts has anything to do with the American president from almost a century ago, or even with the herberts of 1970 that the Stack Exchange site.


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