The Dozens

Charles Doyle cdoyle at UGA.EDU
Thu Jul 13 19:27:08 UTC 2006

The preponderance of the AA "dozens" texts that Abrahams collected were in rhyme, and a number of them focus on other family members of the adversary besides his mother, as well as circumstances of the home life and personal characteristics of the adversary himself.  The principal "rule" (according to the scholars) seemed to be the avoidance of visible anger; playing the dozens is (or was) a ritualized GAME of wits and verbal ability--and behaviorial restraint.  A participant who got mad or took the taunts to be "fighting words" was automatically a loser.

I believe the genre, once it expanded beyond the AA communities, has become rhetorically more pallid, with briefer segments, which are more single-mindedly focused on "yo' mama"--and perhaps more "prosaic."

In 1942 an annonymous reply to a query in ANQ defined "playing the dozens" (in the normal sense; Dollard's article had been in print a couple of years) and gave as a synonym "shooting the dozens" (1, no. 10 [Jan. 1942]: 156).

In an issue of PADS for 1944, Francis C. Hayes ("A Word-List from North Carolina") entered "dozens, to shoot" with the gloss "To curse" and an example, "Don't come shooting no dozens at me," said to come from (or typify the speech of?) a "N.C. Negro" (2[1944]: 33).

Can that be right?  If so, the image of "shooting" (however that image is to be conceived) may suggest something about the origin, or at least the early semantics, of the term "dozens."

IF I were to engage in wildly speculative etymologizing, I would suggest this:  That the term "dozens" comes from "dasn't"--descriptions such as, ordinarily, one dasn't utter.  But obviously there's a crushing lack of evidence for ANY of the proposed origins . . . .


---- Original message ----
>Date: Thu, 13 Jul 2006 11:30:29 -0700
>From: Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM>
>Subject: Re: The Dozens

>  I've never heard of the dozens being waged in rhyme or according to any rules other than focusing mainly on yo' mama.
>  J

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