Names: SF’s Influence on Name Freedom
The coolest human to share my first name refused to use the name. Herbert Marshall McLuhan became a world famous philosopher and media theorist under the name Marshall McLuhan where he coined the phrases ‘global village’ and ‘the medium is the message.’ He also famously used science fictional terms when he said, “There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.”
Why was the name Marshall preferable to Herbert? I lived less than fifty miles away from McLuhan (as the crow flies). For me, the name abuse started when toddlerdom ended and other four-plus year-olds started calling me (and singing, and chanting) Herbert Sherbert. Today, most authorities acknowledge sherbert as a common misspelling of sherbet, so sherbert sort of exists now. Not fifty years ago. It was just kid torture. I have to wonder what McLuhan’s childhood experience was like in Edmonton.
Soon the torture became physical. At least near Buffalo’s P.S. 63, which I attended for three and a half years, there was a Purple Herbie, which was the term for the discolored welt left when a kid grabs a good pinch of belly flesh and gives it a harsh twist and holds it there until you squirm away. I got double shares because of my name. I wished I could have gone by my middle name, but I already had two first cousins and a grandfather named Anthony, and that was confusing enough.
In a sense, I was saved by a speculative fiction hero. You see, a little later in the 60’s Herbie the Love Bug became a hit movie. To be sure, I received a lot of Love Bug teasing, but it was much better natured than the previous name abuse. In addition, fifty years later I can’t help wondering if my lifelong fandom of speculative fiction might not have been encouraged by a hugely popular mainstream film about a sentient automobile that shared my name. If my goal was to avoid persistent Love Bug teasing, I wasn’t going to get far. Love Bug movies were released in 1969, 1974, 1977, 1980, 1997, and 2005. There were also five episodes of a Love Bug television show in 1982. Truly, a derivative of my name is synonymous with a very popular thinking machine.
This was followed by a blessedly brief period where middle school students thought it clever to rhyme Herbert with Pervert. The period ended around 1974 with frequent reruns of the Star Trek episode “The Way to Eden” (episode 75 of the 79 made) where hippies in search of paradise chant “Herbert” as a derogatory term. I know that Star Trek atypically had a successful syndication almost immediately upon completing its run in 1969 and with only three seasons of episodes available for daily broadcast. (The syndication process of ‘stripping,’ edits episodes to allow more commercials, and then broadcast them five days a week.) But it did not feel as if the syndication of ST:TOS permeated Greater Buffalo until the 1973-1974 television season. I certainly became sensitive to every local airing of that particular episode.
By then I had tuned out a lot of the name-calling, but it doesn’t mean my high school mates were going to miss out on the teasing. Lest this seem one-sided, I’m sure I did my share of teasing in return. But the above examples help explain why I answer to “Herb”, and not “Herbert” or “Herbie”.
Of course, “Herb” was not immune, and I can’t neglect Burger King’s “Where’s Herb” advertising campaign while I’m recounting the litany of irritation. Burger King patrons were encouraged to ask others at Burger King if they were Herb so they could win prizes. Soon thereafter, Burger King realized this was problematic for those of us actually named Herb. They attempted to resolve their faux pas by adding that you had to have the right Herb to win and, if asked, the rest of us Herbs should answer “I’m not the Herb you’re looking for.” I don’t know if they were aware of the innuendo created by the fact that herb was also common shorthand for marijuana. I was not the Herb anyone was looking for. I didn’t even have the patience to use the campaign as a way to meet girls. (“Hi, I’m Herb. No really! Let me show you my ID.” Then again, who goes to Burger King to meet girls?) The above examples are all more or less G-rated, whereas an awful lot of what I’ve been called was distinctly not G-rated. Really, I’m okay with anyone calling me Herb. Doctor, Sir, and Mister? I’ll take all of those you’ve got. They beat most of the things I’ve been called.
Regarding this I share that my father (may he rest in peace) had pet names for each of his three children. His pet name for me was “What-the-f***’s-wrong-with-you?” primary accent on the “What”, secondary accent on the “f***’s”. Now my father served in the infantry, and at times worked as a mechanic, and a truck driver (before settling in as a manager). For him, swearing was an art-form, and it inspired my love of words. In his own way, he was an exceptional man who told me he loved me every month that I lived in his home. But for portions of my life he used his pet name for me many times a week. For that matter, there was a stretch where my sisters thought my name was “Jesusmaryandjoseph” because my mother hurled it so often in my direction.
But the idea that drove me to write this piece is that two events changed the way my subjective America dealt with names. The first was the success of Star Trek, and particularly the profound popularity of the character Spock. In ways that are hard to explain to those who weren’t there, Spock reached hidebound America and opened doors to allow entrance to aliens and foreigners and people with funny names (and ears). In my admittedly uncommon corner of the world, the syndicated success of ST:TOS from 1973-1976 contributed to making society enormously more tolerant and paved the way for amazing entertainment in the field of speculative fiction.
The second event happened on January 23, 1977, but needs perspective in a cultural way. From 1971 on, one show changed television and really, changed the country. The show was All in the Family and it really didn’t matter if you liked it, loved it, hated it, or loathed it, you were going to watch it, or at least be aware of it. For five consecutive years it was overwhelmingly the number one rated show in America. You were going to watch it on Saturday night because it was going to be the main topic of conversation at school and work on Monday morning. I can’t think of anything in society today that compares to the shared national experience of this sort. No one in my universe was NOT talking about this show. And in the positive sense, we had the idea that we could have an experience in common.
In 1977, ABC had no idea what they had with a new property they virtuously dedicated a lot of money and resources to with no expectation of success. The property was Roots, and they knew it was outstanding, and they did not believe at all that white America would watch a TV show about personal black history. They formatted it in the still new miniseries format and took the unusual strategy of broadcasting it on eight consecutive nights in January. Few expected what happened next. Sunday night, January 23rd, a whole country watched the unknown actor LeVar Burton portray Kunta Kinte, an African captured and sold on the slave market in the American south. He resists both his slave status and his American name of “Toby” and is whipped as a result. Through a long and traumatic scene where an overseer keeps asking him his name as he is whipped, he insists he is Kunta Kinte until finally, near death, he acknowledges Toby, and the whipping stops. That scene was one of the most powerful ever broadcast on network television. I swear that when he finally answered the overseer in a whisper, “Toby,” there was a national expelling of breath audible across the country as a hundred million Americans finally resumed breathing.
And Monday morning came, and for the most overwhelming time in history, Americans talked about something other than All in the Family. All subsequent ratings successes would be compared to Roots. And far more importantly, America for the first time understood that not respecting a person’s chosen name was a form of oppression, and a kind of abuse, in this case tantamount to whipping.
LeVar Burton became a star overnight, and his unusual name should not go unnoticed. It was the first major instance of African-American differences in naming permeating white America. Nor was it coincidence that LeVar Burton ended up as a regular on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Two television phenomena, one historical, one set in the future, changed the way America deals with names. In recent times, people under 45 seem very comfortable with all sorts of odd names. Interestingly enough, most of my students have no sense that Herb is a conventional name centuries old. To them it’s sort of new and cool.
That said, SF was kind enough to give me one more gift when it comes to names. In 2015, Universal Pictures created a pretty cool Herb, Herb Overkill in the movie Minions, voiced by Jon Hamm. This Herb is a mad inventor with 60’s rock star appearance and chic, and married to a supervillainness voiced by Sandra Bullock. Now that’s a genre namesake I’m happy to have.
Now how about we give it a rest? No more Herbs.
Oh, wait. Canada just legalized marijuana, and I live on the border of Canada. And herb is a euphemism for marijuana. And I’m Dr. Herb. Why didn’t I trademark that phrase?
It never ends…