Snake Educators: Stop Saying “Herp” and Preach Beyond the Choir

Herp. What does that word mean to you?

If you’re someone who knows about and enjoys reptiles and amphibians, it’s a great word. It’s short for ‘herpetology’, duh. It’s synonymous with an obsession you probably developed before you learned to tie your shoes.

If you’re anyone else, this isn’t the case. It’s a place in our language already reserved: a sexually transmitted disease, or counterpart to “derp”, meaning stupid, doing something stupid, or a stupid-looking face.

We all suck at talking to the right audience.

There’s a documentary I saw years ago, about the (still) ongoing debate between Creationists and everyone else in our century, called Flock of Dodos. With the amount of overwhelming evidence in support of evolution, how can a debate still exist in 2016? The answer isn’t as easy as blaming religion and blasting conservatives for classroom politics. The real culprit is that scientists often suck at talking to people. The documentary makes this pretty clear: science education suffers from the assumption that being correct matters.

The same is true for activists and educators who operate under a false belief: factual information makes a difference, when given to an audience that does not value facts. There seems to be an idea out there that, to the person who blasts every snake he sees with a shotgun purely for the fun of it, a few well-placed facts will change his mind … that to that personality, citations will make a difference, and that if these particular facts don’t do the trick, more facts will for sure. Education certainly matters, but the singular tactic of preaching to the uncaring does nothing. To this individual, education must be sold. How do we sell information to an audience that doesn’t care? Marketing.

Think Like a Marketer

Bad marketers assume. They guess what people are interested in, what they want, what they care about, and why they care about those things. I see so many educational communications and groups making the same mistakes. These groups never ask the simple questions: what is the reason why people don’t like snakes? What fears do they have? Why do they have those fears? None of those questions would be answered by providing interesting information about snakes … people don’t kill snakes because they don’t know much about them; they kill them because they are worried about their pets, livestock, and probably quite a few ego-driven issues. If the information that we have is not packaged in a way that directly addresses those concerns, it is a useless action.

The details of this topic could go on forever — but I’d like to address perhaps the most obvious case of bad education communication in the herpetological community: “herp”.

“Dat’s a nasty STD, yo. Ew!”

That’s the first entry to a survey I put out awhile back, just to dip my toe in the obvious: “herp” is a really stupid word to use in our educational communications.

What does the word “herp” mean to you?

I posted the question on a Reddit community with no context. Granted, this is a single audience, but more diverse than I thought. Out of 237 respondents, most were in their 20’s. Almost 25% were in that impressionable “my world-view is starting to cool like Hadean-era crust” age range of 18–20, and just under 9% were in their 30’s.

As predicted, the results are a pretty fun read. While a very small portion of the responders actually recognized the term as one synonymous with reptiles and amphibians, most associated with the more famous pairings.

Either short for ‘herpes’ or ‘herp de derp’

I don’t know, but “herpes” came to mind, so I think it may have something to do with disease or bacteria?

It means dumb or herpes

meaningless filler word for talking about something dumb

Stupid, a less offensive version of “retard”. Usually used as a noun to describe an action rather than a person.

The results to the question “When you hear or read the word HERP, what is your first reaction?” are just as fun:

I assume someone is making fun of someone else’s appeareance.

Herpes. Sores. Weeping sores.

I think of someone saying “herp de derp” when mocking someone for being stupid.

keep your distance


Wow, so when we’re coming up with communication pieces or starting an organization to educate people who aren’t already in-the-know about reptiles and amphibians, we should definitely use the word “herp”, right? I’ll base my answer on the responses to the next question in the survey: “If an organization’s name includes the word HERP, how would that affect your initial reaction to the organization?”.

Of 5 choices, the most popular was “I would find the organization funny or not take it seriously.” with ~38%. Next, with ~26%, is “I would assume the organization is a joke or satire.” At the bottom, with 1.23%, is “I would be excited about this organization.”

Is this even the right audience? To the question, later in the survey, “If you see a rattlesnake in the wild, what do you do?” (Also, the first mention of anything that could give away the purpose of the survey, beyond the ability for the user to change answers), ~67% answered either “Run away as fast as possible.”, or “Do nothing; you have no interest in the snake one way or another.”. Fortunately, only 1.68% selected “Kill the Snake”.

If you want a fun read, or you’re not convinced that naming your brand new education group something like “Herps 4 Ever” or “Everyone Loves Herps”, this PDF is for you:

And if you think that Discovery didn’t pour many thousands of dollars into market research before pooping out “Venom Hunters”, you may not really understand the game. If our best collective response to a ball python peddler entertaining the masses by searching for “liquid gold” is to tell that same group a thing or two about an STD, it’s no wonder we are losing this fight.