The Dozens

your mom

The Dozens is a game of spoken words between two contestants, common in Hip-hop/Urban communities, where participants insult each other until one gives up or violence erupts. 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. It is also known as ‘sounding,’ ‘joning,’ ‘woofing,’ ‘sigging,’ or ‘signifying,’ while the insults themselves are known as ‘snaps.’

The origin of the game is unclear, but it has roots in Africa: similar contests are held in Nigeria among the Igbo people, and in Ghana. 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.’

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 the game’s focus on one’s opponents 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. 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. 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. 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.’

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.

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.


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