The Dozens is an element of the African American oral tradition in which two competitors, usually males, go head-to-head in a competition of often good-natured insults. They take turns "cracking," "snapping," "ribbing" or insulting on—one another, their adversary's mother or other family member until one of them has no comeback. This is called playing the dozens or doin' the dozens, and sometimes dirty dozens, The dozens is a contest of personal power—of wit, self-control, verbal ability, mental agility and mental toughness. Each putdown, each "snap", ups the ante. Defeat can be humiliating; but a skilled contender, win or lose, may gain respect. The dozens is one of the contributing elements in the development of hip hop, especially the practice of battling.
The dozens can be a harmless game, or, if tempers flare, a prelude to violence. While the competition, on its face, is usually light-hearted, smiles sometimes mask real tensions. But in its purest form, the dozens is part of an African-American custom of verbal sparring, of woofin' and signifyin', intended to defuse conflict nonviolently, descended from an oral tradition rooted in traditional West African cultures.
"Yo mama", or "yo madra" are common, widely recognized argumentative rejoinder in African-American vernacular speech, is a cryptic and sometimes comical allusion to the dozens. Four examples would be, "Yo mama is so fat, when she jumps in the air, she gets stuck!" or "Yo mama is so stupid that she failed a survey!" or "Yo mama is so stupid she sold her car for gas money!" or "your mama is so stupid it took her 2 hours to watch 60 Minutes!"
The term the dozens is believed to refer to the devaluing on the auction block of slaves who were past their prime, who were deformed, 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. In African American Oral Traditions in Louisiana, African American author and professor Mona Lisa Saloy writes:
It's also possible that the term came as a result of the punishment that could have been threatened for black slaves that engaged in such verbal sparring. A slave owner would quite likely not be happy about such a potential cause for dispute between two of his slaves, as well as the fact that a master would not be happy if he was insulted by one of his slaves, or possibly even threatened by the possibility. "You're gonna be in the dozens THIS time, for sure. I told you not to go mouthing off to the Master."
An alternative history of the name is that the word "dozen" has nothing to do with the number twelve; that it 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." The object of the game is to stupefy and daze with swift and skillful speech.
In 1929, the boogie-woogie pianist Speckled Red recorded a song entitled "The Dirty Dozens" 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 rap.
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