An exchange of childish ritual taunts

Of the form

V1 ya, wouldn’t wanna / shouldn’t hafta V2 ya (where V1 and V2 rhyme)

In a One Big Happy strip from the backlog on my desktop:

(#1) Ruthie and the tough neighborhood kid James trade taunts, until Ruthie’s mother drags her away from the encounter

This is a competitive performance of verbal skills, designed to insult without wounding. James’s first move is a pre-existing model, and then they go on from there.

The model See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya is mortally deployed in the 1991 film New Jack City — you can watch the scene here — and even used for an insult greeting card on Etsy by ClaireBarclayDraws, described as a “cheeky fun leaving or bon voyage card”:


Background. First, from my 10/6/21 posting “Masculinity comics 2”, with this OBH strip:

(#3) Ruthie heaps formulaic insults on her brother Joe (including the kid insults stupid head, monkey face, and nachos for brains — poopy head, a stand-in for the stronger shit for brains, would be the classic kid insult) until she hits on something he really cares about

… Kids slinging insults. I don’t know the literature on this — and I’m in no position to do a search for it — but anecdotally it seems clear that young children in our culture learn fairly early to sling sincere insults and also to lie; I don’t know when they put the two together to hurl false accusations. Separately, they pick up certain kinds of physical play aggression, especially chase games; and, at least among boys, wrestling with one another. All this eventually knits together to allow verbal play aggression, which can be a very tricky business, easily sliding from playfulness (itself serving several possible functions) into an attack masquerading as playfulness and on to frank genuine aggression, aimed at domination, humiliation, the infliction of pain, and the like.

Kids can practice verbal play aggression, without veering into genuine hurt, if they have available some verbal formulas that are fully conventionalized as playful only: this is the beauty of expressions like poopy-head.

… Formulaic ritual insults like poopy-head can be used without risk for the full range of functions of ritual insults: but also in

— expressing affection, closeness (we’re such good friends that I can call you poopy-head and you can call me stinky-feet);

— projecting a critique of power (from the less powerful against the more powerful: younger against older, girl against boy, protected against protector, weaker against stronger; in these situations, the more powerful will often choose not to respond in kind but to deflect the critique, for example, by a display of indifference, as in [#3]);

— or, in accordance with the Boy Code, providing a toughening-up ordeal, in which a boy learns (in a controlled situation) to “take it like a man” and “give as good as he gets”, in preparation for a lifetime of genuinely aggressive competition with other males

Toughening-up will move boys in a male band from the formulaic to powerful (but situationally tricky) insults like bastard, fuckface, dumbass, little-dick, and even faggot — insults that are are intended to provoke the target to respond in kind (or to exhibit heroic contemptuous endurance — nothing can rattle me, you fucks), just as physical aggression is intended to provoke what amount to controlled fights, in which the winner demonstrates his power and the loser his valor, and the two become the best of friends thereafter.

Apparent actual aggression. In our culture, people engage in apparently aggressive teasing, “kidding”, “playing a joke on” others, pranking them, etc. which can be intended as playful, covertly aggressive, or frankly attacking. They also use verbal insults in all these ways. There are even lines of insult greeting cards — quite a few of them — whose actual use is very unclear to me.

Classic ritual insults. The literature on ritual insults is extremely heavily focused on one set of practices and its variants. 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 increasingly egregious insults in order to heighten the tension and, consequently, make the contest more interesting to watch.

Playing the Dozens is also known [under a great variety of names] … while the insults themselves are known as “snaps”.

Comments in the game focus on the opposite player’s intelligence, appearance, competency, social status, and financial situation. Disparaging remarks about the other player’s family members are common, especially about mothers (“yo’ mama…”).

… According to sociologist Harry Lefever and journalist John Leland, the game is almost exclusive to African Americans; other ethnic groups often fail to understand how to play the game and can take remarks in the Dozens seriously. Its popularity is higher among low-income, urban communities but also found in middle class and rural settings. Both men and women participate, but the game is more commonly played among men.

Note that this is a public contestation, with an audience — quite unlike the situation in [#3] and most everyday uses of ritual insults in our culture.

Labov’s  classic discussion of the Dozens maintained that it was generally easy to distinguish ritual insults from real ones, but others have disputed this. Tyrone Rivers, in Ritual Insults among Middle School Students: Causing Harm or Passing Time? (M.Sci. in Educational Psychology thesis, UIUC, 2012), studying “roasting” (the Dozens) among 6th and 7th grade African American males in a Midwestern school, concluded (p. 2) that:

Although there are benefits [for the participants in the events] to roasting, the line between roasting and bullying is almost non-existent.

More background, from my 10/9/21 posting “Masculinity comics 5”, on gross-out humor and slapstick.

And then, in my 10/15/22 posting “Bro insults”, drawing on two Zits comic strips:

(#4)  Not any old insults, but ritual insults, like baboon-butt, which won’t be taken seriously; there’s no injury here

(#5)  And monkey-heinie and flame brain, all of them serving not as insults but as signs of male bonding — male friendship and mutual regard

… in one-on-one interactions (rather than male-band interactions), the ritual insult can serve as a deflected avowal of friendship, expression of admiration, or compliment. Actual avowals of friendship, expressions of admiration, and compliments go unspoken; their recipients are expected to be able to infer all this from the rough camaraderie.


One Response to “An exchange of childish ritual taunts”

  1. Danny Boy - London Derriere Says:

    Bob Dylan’s insult/attack song “Positively 4th Street” has as its final stanza an elaboration that reminds me of the “See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya” template —

    I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
    And just for that one moment I could be you
    Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
    You’d know what a drag it is to see you

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