Old Wives' Tales
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Claim: The name of the make-believe land featured in L. Frank Baum's series of Oz books was taken from a file cabinet drawer labelled
Origins: Perhaps no single work of American literature is as firmly woven into our tapestry of popular culture and folklore as
In the decades since the book and film versions of The Wizard of Oz (as it is now more popularly known) were first presented to audiences, our fondness for minutiae has spurred numerous articles dissecting the details of how, when, and why both versions were created. Questions such as "Why did Baum choose 'Toto' as the name of Dorothy's dog?", "Why does Dorothy wear ruby slippers in the film version when the book has her shod in silver slippers?", and "Should Baum have more properly described the storm that lifted Dorothy's house of Kansas as a 'tornado' rather than a 'cyclone'?" have prompted debate and discussion, as no Oz topic, it seems, is too trivial to be the subject of serious investigation.
One of the more famous items of Oz trivia is the selection of the name for Baum's make-believe land, which was featured not just in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but in the title of thirteen subsequent books as well. The name Oz is short, yet catchy and wonderfully evocative, and, as legend has it, the name boasts a suitably whimsical origin as well: Baum, pressed for a name by the children to whom he was unfolding his tale of characters in search of a great wizard, drew inspiration from a nearby file cabinet drawer and dubbed his fictional locale 'Oz.'
Is this anecdote the true origin of 'Oz,' or is it merely one of those tales created and repeated because it makes for a much more colorful and satisfying answer than "I don't remember" or "It doesn't mean anything; it just came to me one day"? The version cited as an example above is the explanation given in a 1961 biography of Baum by one of his sons,
We don't have to rely upon whatever Baum's children may have been told for verification, however, as Baum himself had offered essentially the same story many years earlier in a press release drafted to announce the reissue of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1903:
I have a little cabinet letter file on my desk that is just in front of me. I was thinking and wondering about a title for the story, and had settled on the "Wizard" as part of it. My gaze was caught by the gilt letters on the three drawers of the cabinet. The first wasThis evidence wouldn't seem to leave much room for doubt, as Baum himself is undeniably the one person who knows how he came to choose the name, and this explanation comes straight from the horse's pen, so to speak. Baum's version does differ from the one offered by his son in that the latter places him in a roomful of children rather than alone in his study, but that difference might be dismissed as a mere literary embellishment on his son's part. Even Baum's version contains its own discrepancies, though, as various pre-publication references and copyright registrations reveal that Baum considered several titles for his book using the word "Oz" but not the word "Wizard" (e.g., "The City of the Great Oz," "The Fairyland of Oz," "The Land of Oz"), so clearly he had not "settled on the 'Wizard' as part of it" before coming up with the name 'Oz.'2 Moreover, Baum's wife Maud wrote to a friend in 1943 that:
The word Oz came out of Mr. Baum's mind, just as did his queer characters. No one or anything suggested the word — or any person. This is a fact.The discrepancy in Baum's version could easily be chalked up to the fallibility of human memory — he was writing more than three years after the fact, and his not remembering a small detail such as whether he had first settled on "Wizard" or "Oz" as a title word wouldn't be at all unusual. And his wife's much later insistence that no "thing" or "person" had suggested the name to him could have been intended to discount some other version of its origins, not to completely disclaim the idea that he might have drawn inspiration from a file drawer.
Still, this wouldn't be nearly as interesting a page if we labelled this claim as "true" and left things at that, so we'll opt for an "undetermined" classification that allows us to engage in some additional flights of fancy
Last updated: 18 December 2007
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