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The Dozens is a game of spoken words between two contestants, common in Black communities, where participants insult each other until one gives up. It is customary for the Dozens to be played in front of an audience of bystanders, who encourage the participants to reply with more egregious insults to heighten the tension and consequently, to be more interesting to watch. Among African-Americans it is also known as "sounding", "joning", "woofing", "wolfing", "sigging", or "signifying", while the insults themselves are known as "snaps".
Comments in the game focus on the opposite player's intelligence, appearance, competency, social status, financial situation, and disparaging remarks about the other player's family members—mothers in particular ("yo′ mama...")—are common. Commentary is often related to sexual issues, where the game is then referred to as the "Dirty Dozens".
According to sociologist Harry Lefever and journalist John Leland, the game is almost exclusive to African Americans; other ethnic groups often fail to understand how to play the game and can take remarks in the Dozens seriously.[note 1] Both males and females participate, but the game is more commonly played among males of varying social status.
Several theories have been put forth to explain why the game was developed. One hypothesis from 1939 suggests that the game formed as a way for African Americans to express aggression in an oppressive society that severely punished such displays against whites. Another theory from 1962 highlights how the game's focus on one's opponent's mother is a reflection of the dominance of females in African American families and how young males may feel rejected by females and react accordingly.
The importance of mothers in African and African-American families is at the heart of the game: insulting someone else's mother is sure to inflame the passions of the other player. Like athletic sports and other games across cultures, the Dozens serves as a substitute for physical aggression, advancing the goals of social competition while sparing both sides the injury and economic hardship associated with violence; in the case of the Dozens, this practice is rooted in the pre-Shaka Zulu military custom of using physical posturing and verbal insults to forestall combat. In any event, The Dozens is a contest of personal power: wit, self-control, verbal ability, mental acuity, and toughness.
The first academic treatment of the Dozens was made in 1939 by Yale-based psychologist and social theorist John Dollard, who described the importance of the game among African-American males, and how it is generally played. Dollard's description is considered pioneering and accurate. The Dozens is a "pattern of interactive insult" evident in low-, middle-, and upper-class African Americans, among males and females, children and adults.
Usually two participants engage in banter, but always in front of others, who instigate the participants to continue the game by making the insults worse. Frequently used topics among players who "play the Dozens" or are "put in the Dozens" are one's opponent's lack of intelligence, ugliness, alleged homosexuality, alleged incest, cowardice, poor hygiene, and exaggerations of physical defects, such as crossed eyes.
Dollard originally wrote that he was unaware of how the term "Dozens" developed, although he suggested a popular twelve-part rhyme may have been the reason for its name. He only speculated on how the game itself grew to such prominence. Other authors following Dollard have added their theories. Author John Leland describes an etymology, writing that the term is a modern survival of an English verb—"to dozen"—dating back at least to the fourteenth century and meaning "to stun, stupefy, daze" or "to make insensible, torpid, powerless".
Amuzie Chimezie, writing in the Journal of Black Studies in 1976, connects the Dozens to a Nigerian game called Ikocha Nkocha, literally translated as "making disparaging remarks". This form of the game is played by children and adolescents, and it takes place in the evening, in the presence of parents and siblings. Commentary among the Igbo is more restrained: remarks about family members are rare, and are based more in fanciful imaginings than participants' actual traits. In contrast, the game in Ghana, which is also commonly played in the evenings, insults are frequently directed at family members. Amiri Baraka independently concluded that the dozens originated in Africa and states that they are a surviving adaptation of "African songs of recrimination."
Author and professor Mona Lisa Saloy posits a different theory, stating in African American Oral Traditions in Louisiana that "The dozens has its origins in the slave trade of New Orleans where deformed slaves—generally slaves punished with dismemberment for disobedience—were grouped in lots of a 'cheap dozen' for sale to slave owners. For a Black to be sold as part of the 'dozens' was the lowest blow possible."
The origins of The Dozens can also be clearly seen in the Mande practice of Sanankuya, which involves the ritual and theatrical exchange of insults.
Participants in the Dozens are required to exhibit mental acuity and proficiency with words. In his memoirs Die Nigger Die! (1969), H. Rap Brown writes that the children he grew up with employed the Dozens to kill time and stave off boredom, in the way that whites might play Scrabble. Brown asserts playing the game is a form of mental exercise. Sociologist Harry Lefever states that verbal skill and wit is just as valued among African Americans as physical strength: "Verbal facility is thus a criterion that is used to separate the men from the boys".
According to author John Leland, the object of the game is to stupefy and daze one's opponents with swift and skillful speech. The meaning of the words, however, is lost in the game. The object of the game is the performance.
Remarks in the Dozens can be expressed in rhyme or general language. More simplistic forms are found among younger children:
Adolescents incorporate more sexual themes in their versions, often called the "Dirty Dozens". The language also becomes more playful, with participants including rhymes:
I was walking through the jungle
With my dick in my hand
I was the baddest motherfucker
In the jungle land
I looked up in the tree
And what did I see
Your little black mama
Trying to piss on me
I picked up a rock
And hit her in the cock
And knocked that bitch
A half a block.
Not all forms of the Dozens must address sexual situations or body parts:
If you wanta play the Dozens
Play them fast.
I'll tell you how many bull-dogs
Your mammy had.
She didn't have one;
She didn't have two;
She had nine damned dozens
And then she had you.
The dozens can be played "clean" or "dirty". In some examples, the insults can take the form of one-liners that rhyme, e.g.:
Your hair is so nappy 'cause King Kong's your pappy
In other instances, they appear as straight one-liners without any rhyme, thus:
Yo mom so stupid it takes her an hour to cook minute rice
I saw yo mom kicking a can down the street and asked her what she was doing, she said movin'!!
Yo mom so fat she wears a phone booth for a beeper!!
Yo mom so fat she bleed gravy!!
The social justification for the popularity of the Dozens is the subject of speculation. Its development is entwined with the oppression African Americans encountered as slaves and second class citizens. John Dollard's view of the Dozens was as a manifestation of frustration aggression theory, which he helped develop. He hypothesized that African Americans, as victims of racism, have been unable to respond in kind towards their oppressors, and instead shifted their anger at friends and neighbors, as displayed in the strings of insults.
In 1962, folklorist Roger Abrahams explained the Dozens not only as a reaction to racism, but a mostly male behavior in a society dominated by women, hence the concentration on targeting opponents' mothers. Abrahams believed the Dozens to be exaggeratedly masculine behavior unable to be expressed except in short bursts where a participant attacks his opponent's mother to cause him to attack his own mother.
Both Dollard's and Abraham's views have been criticized for not considering proper context in which the Dozens is used. Folklorist Alan Dundes asserts that by basing their approach on psychoanalytic theory, neither Dollard nor Abrahams considers that the Dozens may be native to Africa, although Dollard does not rule it out. In addition to similar forms of the Dozens found in Nigeria and Ghana, Bantu and Kisii boys have been observed dueling verbally by attacking each other's mothers.
The game is also considered a tool for preparing African Americans for coping with verbal abuse and not becoming enraged. The ability to remain composed during the Dozens is a hallmark of virtue among many African Americans. Two sociologists write, "In the deepest sense, the essence of the dozens lies not in the insults but in the response of the victim. To take umbrage is to be considered an infantile response. Maturity and sophistication bring the capability to suffer the vile talk with aplomb at least, and, hopefully, with grace and wit." Opposing this theory is the reality that many contests end in fights.
Roger Abrahams states that when African Americans reach a certain age, between 16 and 26, the game loses much of its appeal and attempts to enter into sparring contests often result in violence. John Leland writes that the loser of the Dozens is the one who takes his opponent's words at face value, therefore ending his own performance in the back-and-forth exchange.
The Dozens is used in literature, specifically in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Richard Wright's short story "Big Boy Leaves Home", and numerous poems by African American poets including Maya Angelou ("The Thirteens--white and black"), Don L. Lee, Haki Madhubuti, as well as Langston Hughes (Ask Your Mama). In his 2012 book The Dozens: A History of Rap's Mama, music historian and musician Elijah Wald says the term was first defined in a 1921 pop song "Don't Slip Me in the Dozens, Please" recorded by the Black Vaudeville comic Henry Troy and composed by Chris Smith, who accompanied Troy on the piano.
In 1929, the boogie-woogie pianist Speckled Red recorded a song entitled "The Dirty Dozen", which includes lyrics such as "I like yo' momma — sister, too/I did like your poppa, but your poppa would not do./I met your poppa on the corner the other day/I soon found out he was funny that way." (Kokomo Arnold, one of the most popular American blues musicians of the 1930s, also recorded much the same song under the title "The Twelves" in 1935.)
In 1959, Bo Diddley released "Say Man" on Checker 931 (with "The Clock Strikes Twelve" as the B-side), which featured him trading insults with his percussionist Jerome Green. The lyrics are not sung, but spoken conversationally over a musical background; this track has been described as a precursor of hip hop music.
The stand-up comedian and comedy actor Eddie Murphy, a former "Not Ready For Prime Time player," often based his stand-up routines on a reversal of the Dozens, the purpose of which was boasting about oneself rather than insulting someone else. Examples of this can be found in Murphy's known comedy albums, Comedian (1983), Delirious (1983), and the soundtrack to the film Eddie Murphy Raw (1987). Other comedians have provided examples of the Dozens in reverse in the cable TV program Def Comedy Jam.
George Carlin also referenced the Dozens in his Occupation: Foole album (1973) while talking about his upbringing in Manhattan: "You wanna play the Dozens? Well, the Dozens is a game. But the way I fuck your mother, is a god-damned shame!"