Green’s Dictionary of Slang

dozens n.

also dirty dozens, dozen, snagging
[f. the throw of twelve in craps, the worst possible throw, or f. its folk origins as a set of ritualized verses, usu. in rhymed couplets, which ran through twelve specific sexual acts, each rhyming with the numbers one to twelve; dozens can be ‘dirty’ or ‘clean’, depending on the level of obscenity involved; otherwise unsupported, Legman, The Rationale of the Dirty Joke (1968), suggests ‘possibly from the Saxon word “doze”, to stun or overwhelm, as in bulldozer’; for an extended discussion of ety. see E. Wald Talking ’Bout Your Mama (2012)]

(US black) a ritual game of testing a rival’s emotional strength by insulting his various relatives, esp. his mother, and taking similar insults in return; the insults are usu. sexual and/or scatological; thus the common addition of the adj. dirty; also attrib.

Indianapolis Freeman 21 Nov. 6: We are tied of hearing a performer ‘Play the Dozens.’ We are disgusted with the hurlesquing of our good women.
Current Opinion Sept. in Abrahams (1964) n.p.: [song title] The Dirty Dozens.
[US]G. Gray in Oliver Screening the Blues (1968) 237: Oh the old dirty dozen, / The old dirty dozen.
[US]Speckled Red [song title] The Dirty Dozen.
[US]D. Clemmer Prison Community (1940) 331/2: dozens, n. A slighting rhyme relating to one’s parentage; series of vulgar and profane epithets.
[US]C. Himes If He Hollers 122: Pigmeat turned to Smitty and said, ‘Now that’s that man’s own business. S’pose he tell you he was with you mama’ ‘I don’t play no dozens, boy,’ Smitty growled.
[US]Mezzrow & Wolfe Really the Blues 230: The hip language was one kind of verbal horseplay [...] Lots of other games sprang up for the same reason: snagging, rhyming, the dirty dozens, cutting contests.
[US]W.B. Miller ‘Gang Delinquency’ in Short Gang Delinquency and Delinquent Subcultures (1968) 142: The highly ritualized type of mutual insult interchange known as ‘the dirty dozens’.
N.Y. Citizen-Call 30 July 19: An etymologist might be led to define ‘The Dozens’ as the ‘Science of Disparaging One’s Ancestors’ [...] Research reveals that the Dozens were of American slave origin and took the place of physical assault by the ‘field slaves’ on the more favored ‘house slaves’ on Southern plantations [...] It was during the 1920’s ‘[...] that some unknown blues pianist and singer composed an uncopyrighted tune called “The Dirty Dozens” complete with words, which because of their very nature never got on paper. But at barrelhouse and buffet flat rent parties “The Dirty Dozens” became the rage’.
[US]B. Malamud Tenants (1972) 120: We have a game we got we call the dozens. Like the brothers play it no ofay has that gift or the wit, and since whitey ain’t worth but half a black I’m gon play you the half-dozens.
[US]E. Torres Q&A 18: Just running a lil’ game of the dozens.
[US]T. Wolfe Bonfire of the Vanities 106: Playing a game called the dozens, in which the idea is to see how outrageously you can insult the other fellow.
[US]G. Pelecanos Right As Rain 7: White man [...] said that doing the dozens was this thing we been doin’ for generations. Called it the precursor of rap music.
[US]C.W. Ford Deuce’s Wild 243: Tommy Mervin, the best ‘dozens’ player on my block came to my rescue when an older kid name Jared began hitting hard on my mother.
[US](con. 1968-69) D. Spivey ‘If You Were Only White’ 271: [Hank] loved to play the dozens with Paige, ribbing him from time to time, and Paige wisecracking back at him, with both of them laughing and admiring the other’s retort.

In phrases

play the dozen(s) (v.) (also play dozen, put in the dozen, shoot the dozens, slip (in) the dozens, slip in the twelves)(US black)

to compete in ritualized mutual insults, often about one’s family.

Chris Smith [song title] Don’t Slip Me in the Dozen, Please [...] Slipping you in the dozen means to talk about your fam’ly folks / And talkin’ ’bout your parents aren’t jokes.
[US]Chris Smith ‘Don’t Slip Me the Dozen’ in Oliver Screening the Blues (1968) 237: Jones slipped Brownie in the dozen last night, / And Brownie didn’t think that was exactly right.
[US]N.I. White Amer. Negro Folk-Songs 365: [reported from Auburn, Ala., 1915–16] I don’t play the dozen / And don’t you ease me in.
[US]R. Fisher Walls of Jericho 9: For it is the gravest of insults, this so-called ‘slipping in the dozens.’.
[US]A.J. Barr Let Tomorrow Come 185: That puttin’ him in de dozen, Singin’ Man! Sing him out some mo’. Sing him some mo’ dem pop-outs. He jus’ a lowdown lahk ou an’ me but he think he somebody.
[US](con. WWI) H. Odum Wings on My Feet 93: One night in camp in France the boys got to playin’ dozen [...] Mighty ruffish game, boys talkin’ bout other boys’ folks.
[US]Speckled Red ‘The Dirty Dozen’ 🎵 Slip you in the ‘Dozens,’ your pappy is your cousin.
[US]Z.N. Hurston Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1995) 24: Git back outa mah face, Phrony. Ah don’t play de dozens!
[US]‘Digg Mee’ ‘Observation Post’ in N.Y. Age 22 Feb. 10/5: [N]ix of that game called ‘slip’ [...] particularly accented by the ‘dozen’ name.
[US]Z.N. Hurston Dust Tracks On a Road (1995) 720: When they get down to ‘playing the dozens’ they have no equal in America.
[US](con. 1920s–30s) J.O. Killens Youngblood (1956) 125: You better watch that stuff. You know goddamn well I don’t play the dozens.
R. Ellison in Ward Talking ’Bout Your Mama (2012) 9: Trumpet’s got a real nasty mouth...he’s slipping ’em in the twelves [...] Tallking ’bout they mamas and offering to fight ’em.
[US]R. Abrahams Deep Down In The Jungle 49: It is just this impulse, to verbally best someone, when coupled with a growing awareness of sex [...] that results among youths in the practice of ‘playing the dozens’ in rhyme. [Ibid.] 152: He said, ‘Mr. Lion, the way he talking ’bout your mother, down your cousins, / I know damn well you don’t play the dozens’.
[US]N. Giovanni ‘A Revolutionary Tale’ in King Black Short Story Anthol. (1972) 268: He’s slipping ’em in the twelves [...] Talking ’bout they mamas.
[US]H. Selby Jr Requiem for a Dream (1987) 34: Is that supposed to be a compliment or you playing the dozens?
[US]E. Folb Runnin’ Down Some Lines 31: Shooting [...] the dozens — a verbal game involving the exchange of ritualized insults primarily directed at your opponent’s mother. [Ibid.] 92: I don’t play the dozens, the dozens ain’t my game/But the way I fucked your momma is a righteous shame.
[US](con. 1930s) C.E. Lincoln The Avenue, Clayton City (1996) 18: Playing the dozens [...] was an effort to prepare one to be able to ‘take it’.
[US]S. Morgan Homeboy 123: The art was [...] playin’ the dozens, cuttin’ up dream jackpots, and slowin’ your metabolism to a crawl.
[US]P. Beatty Tuff 125: Tuffy can’t play the dozens, ’cause he can’t lie.
play the dozens with one’s uncle’s cousin (v.)

(US black) to go about things in quite the wrong way, to make a mess of things.

[US]D. Burley Orig. Hbk of Harlem Jive 60: You’re playing the dozens with your uncle’s cousins, but you’re like the marshmallow, all soft ’n’ yellow.
put someone in the dozen(s) (v.)

(US) to put somone in a negative situation.

[US]R. Bradford John Henry 212: Maybe de happy dust cross me up and de preacher put me in de dozens.
C. S. Johnson Growing Up in the Black Belt 185: To be ‘put in the dozens’ is one of the worst things that can happen to an individual.
in L. Saxon et al. Gumbo Ya-Ya 448: You dirty mistreater, / You robber and cheater, / I’ll put you in the dozen.
[US]N. Heard House of Slammers 70: Why did you laugh when I got put in the dozens, muthafucka?