The dozens is an element of the oral tradition in which two competitors, usually males, go head-to-head in a competition of often good-natured insults. They take turns cracking, snapping, West Coast dissin’”, or ranking on—one another, their adversary’s mother or other family member until one of them has no comeback. This is called playing the dozens or doin’ the dozens, and sometimes dirty dozens, The dozens is a contest of personal power—of wit, self-control, verbal ability, mental agility and mental toughness. Each putdown, each “snap”, ups the ante. Defeat can be humiliating; but a skilled contender, win or lose, may gain respect. The dozens is one of the contributing elements in the development of hip hop, especially the practice of battling.
The dozens can be a harmless game, or, if tempers flare, a prelude to violence. While the competition, on its face, is usually light-hearted, smiles sometimes mask real tensions. But in its purest form, the dozens is part of an African-American custom of verbal sparring, of woofin’ and signifyin’, intended to defuse conflict nonviolently, descended from an oral tradition rooted in traditional West African cultures.
“Yo mama”, or “yo madra” are common, widely recognized argumentative rejoinder in African-American vernacular speech, is a cryptic and sometimes comical allusion to the dozens. Four examples would be, “Yo mama is so fat, when she jumps in the air, she gets stuck!” or “Yo mama is so stupid that she failed a survey!” or “Yo mama is so stupid she sold her car for gas money!” or “your mama is so stupid it took her 2 hours to watch 60 Minutes!”
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