The Dozens

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Sun Jul 16 02:00:45 UTC 2006

In my day, "front off" was originally the most commonly-used term.
But, for some reason, it rather quickly fell out of use and was
replaced by a word that I heard as "jawing." Shortly thereafter, the
term of choice became "joning." Even back in that day, the '50's,I was
aware of the possibility that "jawing" was some kind of mishearing on
my part, and that the term always was "joning."

"Front off" still lives, with a variety of meanings, none matching the
one peculiar to St. Louis, in other parts of the country. I read
somewhere or other that "joning" is, or was, also the term of choice
in DC.

Among the people with whom I associated, playing (the dozens wasn't a
contest. Rather, it involved "shooting someone down" by embarrassing
him or causing him to laugh at himself. I've already posted an example
of the former, but I'm happy to post it again, for convenience.

One day, a bunch of guys were crowded around Darlene, who was the
center of attention. Peggy, who regarded Darlene as outgroup, walked
up. Feeling that Darlene was attracting attention above what her
station in the pecking order allowed, Peggy felt obligated to put
Darlene in her place. The following exchange occurred.

P. Darlene, why don't you shut up?! Your mouth is too big!
D. Well, at least my mouth is not as big as that hole you're standing over!

Peggy, completely misunderstanding Darlene's riposte, unfortunately
looked down and around to find the hole to which Darlene was
referring. Then she suddenly flashed on Darlene's meaning. The "hole"
to which Darlene was referring was, of course, the opening of Peggy's
vagina. Those within earshot shouted "Jone! Jone!" and "I don't play
'em, but I do know 'em when I hear 'em!" A couple of years earlier,
Darlene's response would have been a textbook example of a front-off.

An example of the second of jone is this.

David, one of the first black athletes to be recruited by the
University of Missouri to play football, was trying to run his game
down to Janice. But Billy kept breaking David's rap. Finally,having
taken all that he could take, took Billy, a mere reed of a stripling,
and went upside the wall with him.

David: Shut up! I'm tired of yo' mouth, nigguh!
Billy [fighting his way out of David's grasp]: Hey, man! Who you thank
you callin' "nigguh"?!
David [again grabbing Billy and again going upside the wall with him]:
I KNOW I'm calling YOU "nigguh," nigguh!
Billy: Oh. Well, thass okay, then, man. I jus' wanted to be sure you
wadn' makin' no mistake.
David [bursting into laughter and shaking Billy's hand]: Nigguh, you crazy!


On 7/14/06, Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: The Dozens
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> On 7/14/06, Wilson Gray <hwgray at> wrote:
> >
> > When I was a kid in St. Louis, "playing the dozens" didn't necessarily
> > apply to the classic form of the game. The usual terms, as I knew them
> > in the '50's were:
> >
> > Front [someone] off
> > Square [someone] off
> > Jone with [someone]
> > Play with [someone]
> > Sound on [someone]
> > Sound [someone] down
> According to Labov's 1972 article "Rules for Ritual Insults" (in
> _Studies in Social Interaction_ and _Language in the Inner City_),
> "sounding" was the most common term for the dozens in NYC usage.
> --Ben Zimmer
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

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found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be
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