The Dozens

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Thu Jul 13 14:36:20 UTC 2006

A look at Geneva Smitherman's _Black Talk_ (Boston: Houghton, 1994), p.100 advises that "The term, though not the ritual itself, is believed to have originated during enslavement, wherein slave auctioneers sold defective "merchandise," e.g., sick slaves or older slaves, in lots of a dozen; thus a slave who was part of a dozens group was "inferior."

  The writer doesn't say believed by whom, offer evidence, explain why such "lots" would be called "dozens groups," or conjecture as to why anybody would be likely to associate a West African ritual involving insults to mothers and other relatives with such groups of a dozen sick or old slaves.

  Evidently having reconsidered, Prof. Smitherman does not repeat the assertion of "original verses" and "twelve sex acts" in either the first (1994) or the revised (2000) edition of _Black Talk_, both of which include some encyclopedic information on the dozens, expanded in 2000.


  Douglas G. Wilson" <douglas at NB.NET> wrote:
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Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: "Douglas G. Wilson"
Subject: Re: The Dozens

>OED assumes some unstated relationship to the ordinary "dozen," which one
>strongly doubts; no reference I'm aware of claims that the insults ever
>came in groups of twelve, for example.

DARE records a 1977 passage by Smitherman in which it is
asserted/speculated that "the original verses involved twelve sex acts
[committed with 'yo momma']". Doesn't sound nearly as ridiculous as the
atrocious mutilated-slaves story, but I'd like to see some evidence.

Maybe "dozens" might originally refer simply to "[a sequence of] dozens
[i.e., a bunch] of remarks"?

When I was young[er] (ca. 1960-1962, Detroit) I encountered this bantering
activity many times, maybe every day or two at school. Maybe I even
participated once or twice. It was not then usually called 'playing/doing
[the] dozens' IIRC; I don't remember it being called anything in
particular. Surely "your mama" was a favorite topic. IIRC, the 'white' boys
did this just about the same as the 'black' boys. I don't recall the girls
doing it, but then .... In the 'best' cases, the volleys might have
approached ONE dozen jocular insults in total, as I recall.

No doubt some of the scholars have comparable recollections.

-- Doug Wilson

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