The dozens—also referred to as "playing the dozens," "sounding," "joning," or "woofing"—is a verbal game of insult and boasting involving at least two participants and an audience. The dozens are played by males and females across all age groups. Insults can be rhymed or unrhymed, although adult versions rely less on rhyme and more on improvisation. Audience participation is integral, since observers issue the verbal praise that regulates the contest to either a peaceful or violent resolution.
The dozens can be "clean" or "dirty." Performers of the clean or ordinary dozens insult intelligence, achievements, or appearance, as in this example: "Your lips are so big, they call them soup coolers." Performers of the dirty dozens use obscene language to boast of sexual conquests, frequently of the contender's family members, as in the following: "I fucked your mother between two cans. Up jumped a baby and hollered, 'Superman'" (Abrahams, 1990, p. 301). The retort "Your mama!" is considered a shorthand form of the dirty dozens.
Early researchers pinned Freudian explanations for the dozens to their perceptions of a dysfunctional community. These patterned insults were interpreted as release valves for a racially repressed group (Dollard, 1990) or as strategies for African-American males to build masculine identities within a matriarchal society (Abrahams, 1990). Later research targeted functional values, citing the dozens's role in promoting community norms and teaching verbal strategies for resolving actual conflicts (Garner, 1983).
The origins of the dozens are uncertain. However, analogs include the verbal duels or "joking relationships" of various African ethnic groups and the derisive exchanges in West Indian calypso and African-American rap music. Before scholarly attention was accorded them, the dozens were recorded by blues performers such as Memphis Minnie McCoy, Sweet Peas Spivey, and Lonnie Johnson. The consensus of researchers and performers is that the dozens are entertaining exercises that display cultural competency. Along with other speech acts such as preaching, signifying, and rapping, the dozens demonstrate the high value placed on verbal skills across the African diaspora.
Abrahams, Roger D. "Playing the Dozens." Journal of American Folklore 75 (1962): 209–220. Reprinted in Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: edited by Alan Dundes. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
Dollard, John. "The Dozens: Dialect of Insult." American Imago 1 (1939): 3–25. Reprinted in Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel; Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore, edited by Alan Dundes. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
Garner, Thurmon. "Playing the Dozens: Folklore as Strategies for Living." Quarterly Journal of Speech 69 (1983): 47–57.
Mufwene, Salikoko, John R. Rickford, Guy Bailey, and John Baugh, eds. African-American English: Structure, History, and Use. New York: Routledge, 1998.
cassandra a. stancil (1996)