The Dozens

Cohen, Gerald Leonard gcohen at UMR.EDU
Wed Jul 12 18:38:40 UTC 2006

This is all interesting, but what *is* the origin of "the dozens"?  
Gerald Cohen


From: American Dialect Society on behalf of Benjamin Zimmer
Sent: Wed 7/12/2006 11:18 AM
Subject: Re: The Dozens

Jonathon Green <slang at ABECEDARY.NET> wrote:
> This apeared in a piece in this morning's Guardian Unlimited (online),
> discussing the nature of the insult hurled at France's Zinedine Zidane
> in the football World Cup Final - which led to his head-butting an
> Italian opponent and getting sent off - and specifically
> 'mother-related' insults around the world:
> "... why are the verbal contests in African-American culture that
> feature disparaging competitors' mothers called "the dozens"? In Still
> Laughing to Keep from Crying: Black Humor, Mona Lisa Saloy, professor of
> English at Dillard University, explains: "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."
> A new one on me and it seems to smack of specious popular etymology. But
> I may be wrong. Can anyone either support the theory or indeed demolish
> it. And if 'the (dirty) dozens' has been dealt with by the List long
> since, my apologies, I have yet to check.

Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at> wrote:
> Sounds like BS to me - and not even plausible BS.

Yeah, because we all know that the proper derivation of "the dozens"
is from Wolof _doxaan_ 'to court a lover', since the verbal jousting
was originally a covert method of expressing affection, much like
pulling on pigtails.

(Give it a few years, and this explanation should be all over the Web.)

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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