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 labeled
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
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:
Still, this wouldn't be nearly as interesting an article if we labeled this claim as a legend and left things at that, so we'll engage in some additional flights of
- "Oz" was chosen for its similarity to "Boz," the pseudonym employed by writer Charles Dickens, whose works Baum admired.3
- The selection of "Oz" was influenced by the title of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" (the Greek form of User-maat-Re, one of Egyptian pharaoh
Ramses II'smany names).
- The "Land of Oz" was suggested by the "Land of Uz", the Biblical home of Job.3
- "Oz" was suggested by another Biblical concept, this one a passage from
Revelation I: "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty."4
(Our equivalent of "the alpha and the omega" — the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet — would be the letters
- Baum "liked stories that caused the reader to exclaim with 'Ohs' and 'Ahs' of wonder," hence the name.5
- For the truly cryptic, there is Martin Gardner's suggestion that "OZ" derives from a forward letter-shifting of the abbreviation of Baum's home state, New York:
N --> Oand Y --> Z.6 (This is similar to claims that the name of the human-like HAL 9000computer in the film 2001: A Space Odysseycame from a backward letter-shifting of renowned computer-maker IBM).
- Finally, the 1960s interpretation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a parable on populism posits that "Oz" was taken from the standard abbreviation for "ounce," in accordance with the gold symbolism of the yellow brick road and the silver symbolism of Dorothy's slippers.7
Last updated: 30 September 2013
4. Anderson, Celia Catlett. "The Comedians of Oz." Studies in American Humor. Winter 1986-87. 8. Baum, Frank J. and Russell P. McFall. To Please a Child. Chicago: Reilly and Lee, 1961 (pp. 106-110). 3. Gardner, Martin and Russel B. Nye. The Wizard of Oz and Who He Was. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State Univ. Press, 1994. ISBN 0-87013-366-7 (pp. 37-38) 6. Gardner, Martin. "Mathematical Games." Scientific American. February 1972. 1. Haas, Joseph. "The Wonderful Writer of Oz." [Chicago] Daily News. 17 April 1965. 2. Hearn, Michael Patrick. The Annotated Wizard of Oz. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. ISBN 0-393-04992-2. 7. Littlefield, Henry M. "The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism." American Quarterly. Vol. 16  (pp. 47-58). 5. Snow, Jack. Who's Who in Oz. New York: P. Bedrick Books, 1988. ISBN 0-872-26188-3.