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The Oz Files


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 O - Z.

LEGEND

Example:

One interesting story about Baum is that he used to hold "story hour" for all the neighborhood children; they would come to his home and gather in his study, where Baum would make up fantastic stories off the top of his head. One day he began a story about some characters who travel to an imaginary world to meet a great wizard; a little voice piped up wanting to know the name of the land. Baum looked around his study and his eyes rested on a file cabinet with two labels: A-N and O-Z; thus he created the land of "OZ".
 

Origins:   Perhaps no single work of American literature is as firmly woven into our tapestry of popular culture and folklore as L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. First published in 1900, Baum's tale of a little Kansas girl lifted to a faraway land by a Oz cyclone had sold 5 million copies before its copyright expired in 1956, and the 1939 musical film version with Judy Garland (although not initially successful) has probably been viewed more times by more people than any other film in the history of cinema.

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, Frank J. Baum8, and another of his children, Harry Neal Baum, repeated the same story to a Chicago Daily News reporter in 1965, saying: "Father tried and discarded many names for his land, writing at his rolltop desk, and one day he glanced at its three file drawers and was inspired."1

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 was A-G; the next drawer was labeled H-N; and on the last were the letters O-Z. And "Oz" it at once became.
This 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 an article if we labeled this claim as a legend and left things at that, so we'll engage in some additional flights of fancy — namely a listing of other explanations offered by various Oz chroniclers over the years:
  • "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's many 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 A and Z: When combined they produce "A-Z", which might be pronounced "Oz." Note, however, that "Oz" was rhymed with the word "was" in a song drafted for an unpublished dramatization of Baum's book in 1901, which indicates that Baum himself pronounced it more like "Uz.")

  • 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 --> O and Y --> Z.6 (This is similar to claims that the name of the human-like HAL 9000 computer in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey came 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
If we had to choose a winner from all the candidates in this contest, we'd go with L. Frank Baum's explanation. If the author of one of literature's most popular children's fantasy series had really wanted to concoct a fanciful explanation for the origins of "Oz," surely he could have come up with something more imaginative than a file drawer.

Last updated:   30 September 2013

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Sources:

    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 [1964]   (pp. 47-58).

    5.   Snow, Jack.   Who's Who in Oz.
    New York: P. Bedrick Books, 1988.   ISBN 0-872-26188-3.