Playing the Dozens and Bagging in the Navy

Main Text

Subject: Okay so my, my dad had a bunch of sayings that…felt…both very particular to him, but also of a culture that I don’t quite understand? So…for instance, as, as a child, he would regularly tell me, if ugly were a stop sign, my face would be all over town.

If, uh…again, because they felt quick, and they felt like shit that people said, uh, but they also didn’t…he also had one that, you know, when referring to a con man, or a huckster, you know, that guy’s full of more shit than a Christmas turkey, uh…you know, ‘cuz you stuff turkeys.

Uh…other ones. Uh…similar about my uh…I guess he did fuck with me for being ugly a lot. Uh, looks like you got into a hatchet fight and forgot your hatchet. Uh…was there. And uh…what was some…oh, uh, you know, uh, sort of referring, you know, she looks like she’s been dead for two weeks and nobody told her. So I guess a lot of them, again, were…um. Yeah, visual in their base, and sort of thing.


The subject believes that, despite being white and Italian-American, much of his father’s sayings were rooted in the “playing the dozens” and “bagging” traditions of African American Vernacular (AAVE). “Playing the dozens” and “bagging” are forms of tit for tat expressions of mild hostility among peers, similar to “yo mama” jokes. Though on the surface, “playing the dozens” and “bagging” can look like bullying, it is different from bullying because it is performed among social equals. Rather than the “big kid messing with a little kid,” it is more like “two smart kids going back and forth with each other” while a group eggs them on.


The subject’s father first encountered AAVE when he was serving alongside African Americans in the Navy during 1965. As the sailors formed a community through the commonality of sharing the same military routine and struggles, the subject’s father participated in playing the dozens/bagging to strengthen that social connection. The subject’s father retained the social practice upon returning home.

Interviewer’s Analysis

Though the subject mentions that playing the dozens/bagging were meant to be performed among equals, the majority of the subject’s examples come from his father bagging him as a child. Would that violate the “performed among equals” requirement?

Perhaps post-military, away from the regular company of his fellow sailors, the father’s bagging became less of a form of normalized social bonding, and more of a generalized speech habit. The purpose may have shifted to reaffirming the shared social identity and social bonds built during service, by continuing to perform bagging in the absence of community members.