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The dozens

Posted by ESC on October 14, 2004

In Reply to: The dozens posted by Bookworm on October 14, 2004

: : : : : : I was thinking of this phrase after watching the U.S. Presidential debates last night. It seemed to be the only thing that the president failed to charge against the senator.

: : : : : : I was trying to think why my mother might wear combat boots if she had ever worn combat boots which to my best knowledge she never has. I concluded that if she had been a camp follower of the lowest sort, willing to trade her favors for anything of value, she might indeed at some time wind up wearing combat boots. Once again, to the best of my knowledge, my mother never engaged in this occupation at any price.

: : : : : : I claim no accuracy for this conjecture, but if it is anywhere near accurate, it would take the phrase out of the non-sequitir category and turn it into real fighting words. This is, after all, my mother we're talking about.

: : : : : Never heard the phrase, so this is conjecture. How about 'your mother is non-feminine', 'aggressively masculine' something like that?

: : : : : DFG

: : : : This phrase was not uttered to another person unless you wanted your a** kicked from here to Cenral Park and back to Brooklyn where this type of mother-bashing was very popular.
: : : : This is a supreme first class insult here in the NYC area.

: : : I had always heard "army shoes" instead of "combat boots". What can I say? I'm from New Jersey. I had the impression it was a "classic" insult by the time I heard it in the 60's. It must date from World War II. These days, someone's mother may very well have bought combat boots at a boutique on Fifth Avenue and paid top dollar for them, but the insult is in the way you say it.

: : your mother is so stupid...she thought a menstral cycle was a Honda etc.

: : your mother's so fat...when she falls over she rocks herself to sleep trying to get up.

: : there's a name for that kind of ritual mocking - what is it?

: I remember this term from a rerun of Good Times. (A show (situation comedy, i.e. sitcom) in the US about an African-American family that lived in a Chicago housing project).

: Playing the dozens is an African-American custom in which two competitors -- usually males -- go head to head in a competition of comedic trash talk. They take turns "cracking on," or insulting, one another, their adversary's mother or other family member until one of them has no comeback. In the U.S., the practice can be traced back to chattel slavery, when violence among slaves was a property crime with potentially draconian consequences. Verbal sparring became a substitute for physical contention. While the competition on its face is usually light-hearted, smiles sometimes mask real tensions.

: The dozens can be a harmless game, or, if tempers flare, a prelude to physical violence. But in its purest form, the dozens is part of an African-American custom of verbal sparring, of "woofin'" (see wolf ticket) and "signifyin'," intended to defuse conflict amicably, descended from an oral tradition rooted in traditional West African cultures. The dozens is a contest of personal power -- of wit, self-control, verbal ability, mental agility and mental toughness. Defeat can be humiliating; but a skilled contender, win or lose, may gain respect.

: "Yo' mama," a common, widely recognized argumentative rejoinder in African-Amercan vernacular speech, is a cryptic reference to the dozens.

: The term "the dozens" refers to the devaluing on the auctionblock of slaves who were past their prime, who were aged or who, after years of back-breaking toil, no longer were capable of hard labor. These enslaved human beings often were sold by the dozen.

: Yo' mama's so fat, when she hauls a** she gotta take two trips.

THE DOZENS - ".a game of verbal jousting constructed on insults directed in large part toward the mother of one's opponent, was widespread in black culture by the early 20th century. Langston Hughes lyrically glorified the Dozens in the poem 'Ask Your Mama'." This reference lists six possible theories for the origin of "the Dozens" starting with: "Insulting rhymes that progressed from 1 to 12, describing the lewd acts that the opponent's mother enjoyed." Variations to "the Dozens" are "playing the Dozens," "putting someone in the Dozens" and "shooting the Dozens." From "Speaking Freely: A Guided Tour of American English from Plymouth Rock to Silicon Valley" by Stuart Berg Flexner and Anne H. Soukhanov (Oxford University Press, New York, 1997).

Another reference calls it: "A verbal ritual of talking negatively about someone's mother (or occasionally grandmothers and other female relatives) by coming up with outlandish, highly exaggerated, often sexual loaded, humorous 'insults'; played among friends, associates, and those 'hip' to the game. The objective is to outtalk one's competitor, get the most laughs from the group and not lose emotional control. A fundamental rule is that the 'slander' must not literally be true." Most players are male. This source says the Dozens comes from a slave era custom of selling sick or old slaves in lots of 12. Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner by Geneva Smitherman (Houghton Mifflin Co., New York, N.Y., 1994)

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