Signifying

Today’s Scenes From a Multiverse (on-line here):

They’re playing a game of the Dozens, which starts out promisingly in the first panel but then runs down and takes a strange turn.

From Wikipedia:

The Dozens is a game of spoken words between two contestants, common in Black communities of the United States, where participants insult each other until one gives up. It is customary for the Dozens to be played in front of an audience of bystanders, who encourage the participants to reply with more egregious insults to heighten the tension and consequently, to be more interesting to watch. Among African-Americans it is also known as “roasting”, “capping”, “clowning”, “ranking”, “ragging”, “sounding”, “joning”, “woofing”, “wolfing”, “sigging”, or “signifying”, while the insults themselves are known as “snaps”.

Comments in the game focus on the opposite player’s intelligence, appearance, competency, social status, financial situation, and disparaging remarks about the other player’s family members — mothers in particular (“yo’ mama…”) — are common. Commentary is often related to sexual issues, where the game is then referred to as the “Dirty Dozens”.

According to sociologist Harry Lefever and journalist John Leland, the game is almost exclusive to African Americans. Both males and females participate, but the game is more commonly played among males of varying social status.

Yes, it’s mostly a black male thing, but huge numbers of Americans are familiar with the routines of signifying.

2 Responses to “Signifying”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Bert Vaux on Facebook:

    my favorite one with linguistic content is “Yo mama so dumb she hears it’s chilly outside so she gets a bowl”. I heard a comedian on BET do it about 20 years ago, but found it again just now at http://www.jokes4us.com/yomamajokes/yomamasodumbjokes.html

  2. Greg Morrow Says:

    Back in junior high school, we (white male teens) called it “ranking”. The Vikings called it “flyting”, I think. It seems to be a human thing, not an African-American thing.

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