Occasionally, as someone with too much time on his hands, I go on eccentric chases down obscure rabbit holes. I’ve just been on one such adventure. It started with a word and a billionaire’s use of the word, Mark Cuban at a political rally for Hillary Clinton. The word? “Jagoff.” Cuban was talking about Donald Trump. “You know what we call a person like that in Pittsburgh? A jagoff. Is there any bigger jagoff in the world than Donald Trump?”
And suddenly I was back in Pittsburgh, back in my childhood, when it was jagoff this and jagoff that, a common word with us and one that I rarely heard anywhere else but in Pittsburgh—jagoff, an obnoxious, base person, a contemptible person. What was the origin of the word, I wondered?
I had come in my dotage to rely on Google. There in Wikipedia was jagoff: “… an American English derogatory slang term…meaning a person who is stupid or inept. It is most prominent in the Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania areas… an archetypical Pittsburgh word, conjuring warm and nostalgic feelings among Pittsburgh expatriates… the term has its roots in the northern British Isles, an area that supplied many immigrants to Pittsburgh. It is derived from the verb ‘to jag,’ which means ‘to prick or poke.’ “
Solved. But that was just the beginning. I had started down the rabbit hole and there was no stopping me now. What other terms from my youth did I have questions about? When I was in grade school, we played a game called “buck, buck, how many fingers up?” Ten or so kids would form two teams. On the first, one kid would be the post; the rest would bend over and head to butt form a bridge. The other team one by one would then leap on the human bridge, holding up fingers and crying out, “Buck, buck, how many fingers up?” If the put upon team guessed correctly, they would become the jumpers. If the bridge collapsed they’d remain head to butt, to be piled on again.
Some years back I was reading the letters of the poet John Keats and he made mention of buck buck and a note referenced that this was the game still played In school yards some hundred and fifty years after Keats’ time. I was amazed by that and wondered what other vestiges from days past played themselves out in our childhood doings. Mark Cuban’s present use of jagoff brought that all back to me and I began to muse on a mystery that had stayed with me most of my adult life, one which I had only thought of in the most desultory way, but which now I was eager to solve.
When we were kids we had “slip fights”, which were our version of “the dozens”: “Slip one, slip another; you slip me you slip your mother…” And all the kids would go, “Woohoo, slip fight! Slip fight!” And we’d be off, one kid against another while the rest cheered us on… ” “The Mississippi’s wide and muddy, your mother’s big and bloody!” “Woohoo, ooooh” everyone would go. We called it “slip fights.” I later heard it referred to as “the dozens”.
We were eleven years old, in the playground of Colfax Elementary School, all white, middle-class kids, most of us—not a black in the school, no blacks in the neighborhood—and yet we were “doing the dozens”, as it were, the rhyming competition which eventually became rap and hip hop.
I had started down the rabbit hole and was determined to find the relationship between what we called “slip fights” and the blacks called “doing the dozens.” It was virtually the same thing, the same intense competition, the use of grotesquely vulgar imagery, the same ferocious use of mama and mothers. The people in my life who might remember those competitions are either dead or I long ago lost touch with them. We were ten and eleven years old—some seventy years ago! I’ve brought it up to my brother. He has no memory of it. But he was also two years younger than me and not part of the slip fight inner circle.
Now what was I to do? I had tracked down jagoff, and long ago made the connection between John Keats and buck buck. What was I to do? Slipping into the rabbit hole…
Google, of course. Wikipedia.
I discovered a long, comprehensive entry on the dozens. It listed a ton of words used in connection to the dozens. “Slip” was not one of them.
I persisted and eventually in Wikipedia came across the following paragraph:
“In his 2012 book The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama, music historian and musician Elijah Wald says the term was first defined in a 1921 pop song “Don’t Slip Me in the Dozens, Please” recorded by the Black Vaudeville comic Henry Troy and composed by Chris Smith, who accompanied Troy on the piano.“
There it was! “Don’t Slip Me in the Dozens, Please”!
Again from Wikipedia: “The first evidence of our kind of dozens crossing over to Euro-American pop culture is from 1921, when the pianist and composer Chris Smith published ‘Don’t Slip Me in the Dozen, Please’ under the imprimatur of his own Smith & Morgan company. Smith… touring in African American musical shows…had a major national hit in 1913 with ‘Ballin’ the Jack,’ a song based on the dance whose ‘vulgar contortions’ the Indianapolis Freeman critic attacked. His dozens song began with a scene-setting verse that included the first printed explanation of the title phrase:
‘Brownie slipped Jonesie in the dozen last night
Jonesie didn’t think it was exactly right
Slipping you in the dozen means to talk about your fam’ly folks
And talkin’ ’bout your parents aren’t jokes.
Jonesie said to Brownie ‘Really I am surprised
If you were a man you would apologize,
If you refuse to do what I’m telling you to do
I’ll swear out a warrant for you:
It makes no diff’rence who you are
Please don’t talk about my Ma and Pa
Talk about my sister, my brother and my cousin
But please don’t slip me in the dozen.
Talk about my past or my future life
Talk about my first or my second wife,
I’m beggin’ ev’ry human on my bended knees
Don’t slip me in the dozen, please.’ ”
There it was: “Don’t slip me in the dozen, please.”
Our slip fight at ten years old: “Slip one, slip another, slip me you slip your mother.”
But how the distinctively black dozens appeared as slip fights in the all-white, middle class, Pittsburgh grade school playground in 1944 is still a mystery. Still making my way down that rabbit hole…Social tagging: linguistics > mark cuban > pennsylvania > pittsburgh > playground rhymes