"The Dozens", also known as "Yo Momma Fights", is an element of the African American oral tradition in which two competitors, usually males, go head to head in a competition of often good-natured, ribald "trash talk". They take turns insulting—"cracking", "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'" (see wolf ticket) and "signifyin'," intended to defuse conflict nonviolently, descended from an oral tradition rooted in traditional West African cultures.
"Yo' momma," a common, widely recognized argumentative rejoinder in African-American vernacular speech, is a cryptic, and sometimes comical, allusion to the Dozens.
The dozens has its origins in the slave trade of New Orleans where deformed slaves—generally slaves punished with dismemberment for disobedience—were grouped in lots of a 'cheap dozen' for sale to slave owners. For a Black to be sold as part of the 'dozens' was the lowest blow possible.".
An alternate history of the name is that the word "dozen" has nothing to do with the number twelve; that it is a modern survival of an Engish verb—"to dozen"—dating back at least to the fourteenth century and meaning "to stun, stupefy, daze" or "to make insensible, torpid, powerless." The object of the game is to stupefy and daze with swift and skillful speech.
Kokomo Arnold, one of the most popular American blues musicians of the 1930s, released a song, titled Twelves (Dirty Dozens), that includes lyrics such as "I like yo' momma — sister, too/I did like your poppa — but your poppa wouldn't do./I met your poppa on the corner the other day/I soon found out he was funny that way." Alternative hip hop group The Pharcyde released a song on their debut album Bizarre Ride II: The Pharcyde entitled "Yo' Mama," the lyrics of which consist entirely of snaps.
In 2004, the Wayans Brothers, comedians Keenen Ivory Wayans, Shawn Wayans, and Damon Wayans, released The Dozens, a Dozens game for mobile phones. The movies White Men Can't Jump, 8 Mile, and House Party include exchanges of snaps. In addition to that, the MTV "reality-TV" series Yo Momma, which stars Wilmer Valderrama (of That 70's Show fame) is entirely focused around coming up with "the Dozens" to say to an opponent.
In 2008, the hip-hop group Hot Stylz released the single Lookin Boy, whose lyrics comprise a game of The Dozens. In this song the game is referred to as Lookin Boy, as each insult is of the form "You are a (insult) lookin boy".
In William Shakespeare's England, insult competitions were common, with professional experts who were known as "roarers." Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote a comedy, The Roarer, about a foppish young man who hires a roarer to teach him the art so that he can best his wife-to-be in arguments. Some aspects of insults are discussed in the essay Lars Porsena, or the Future of Swearing and Improper Language by the English poet Robert Graves.
Outside of insult contests, the phrase "your mom" is also used as an insult or general retort.
Preceding all of the above mentioned comedians, Richard Pryor referenced The Dozens in his 1975 comedy routine "That Nigger's Crazy." At the time, his stand up act was intended to bring out into the open the latent discrimination of African Americans that still existed in American society at that time, one decade after the Civil Rights Bill was enacted into law. His was the first comedy to really juxtapose Black/White culture.