To African-Americans, what does “signifying” mean?

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Dear Cecil: I keep hearing and reading about “signifying,” e.g., someone calls you a low-life SOB but means it as a term of endearment. What does signifying mean and where does it come from? Does this mean that when you insult someone in your column, you really like them? D.W.A., Downers Grove, Illinois


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Let’s not jump to any rash conclusions, D. Signifying — the origin of the term is obscure — is the process of semi-witty insults by which black American male adolescents attempt to cut their buddies down to size. Some claim the practice has its origins in the days of slavery, when blacks had to learn to take abuse from whites without getting mad, lest the whites punish them. But Cecil, himself a signifier of legendary ability (although we used to call it grossing out), is inclined to think that signifying, under various names, is common among males of any hue whenever the sap is running. As with any sort of repartee, whether you really mean it depends on the situation.

The exact definition of signifying (also known, in various times and places, as sigging, sounding, woofing, wolfing, burning, icing, joning, etc.) is a bit vague. To some it means any kind of ritual insult; to others, it must include an element of indirection — i.e., the victim doesn’t realize he’s being insulted, you egg the victim into a fight with somebody else, or in general you just lay on the BS. One form of signifying is “doin’ the dozens,” which usually means making fun of the other guy’s relatives, particularly his momma. Here are a few of the more printable examples collected by researcher Tom Kochman in his book, Rappin’ and Stylin’ Out: Communication in Urban Black America:

Yo momma eat Dog Yummies.

Yo momma raised you on ugly milk.

Yo momma so bowlegged, she look like a bite out of a donut.

Yo momma sent her picture to the lonely hearts club, but they sent it back and say, “We ain’t that lonely!”

I walk in yo house and yo family be running round the table. I say, “Why you doin that?” Yo momma say, “First one drop, we eat.”

You so ugly, yo momma have to tie a pork chop to yo neck to make the dog play with you.

Sometimes there are rhyming dozens:

Iron is iron, and steel don’t rust,

But yo momma got a [cat] like a Greyhound bus.

Or: I hate to talk about yo momma, she a good ole soul

She got a ten-ton [cat] and a rubber [sphincter ani].

Or (this one’s from the old days):

Yo momma behind like a rumble seat

Hang from her back down to her feet.

A key objective in ritual insults is to have a snappy comeback, commonly known as cappin’ the rap. If somebody says, “Screw you,” you say, “Hey, man, we ain’t even kissed yet.” The story is told of a dude coming out of the john with his fly open. Some women nearby start giggling and pointing. When he finally figures out what’s going on, he goes over and says, “Hey baby, you see that big black Cadillac with the full tires waitin just for you?” One woman says, “No, but I saw a little gray Volkswagen with two flats.”

Not bad. Still, this kind of thing isn’t an exclusively African-American preoccupation. One recalls the famous exchange in Britain’s parliament in which one honorable member attacked another by saying, “I do not know whether your fate will be the noose or syphilis.” To which the attackee replied, “That would depend, sir, on whether I embraced your principles or your mistress.”

Cecil Adams

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