The Roots of Language in Oz


My recent post on language in the Oz books has led to some interesting discussion on this topic. Many of the names of native Ozites are either descriptive of the characters or puns, if not both. There are also frequently themes that run in communities, like all the men in Oogaboo being named Jo followed by the kind of crop they grow.

Other names don’t appear to have any real meaning at all, but I’ve occasionally been surprised when I looked them up. Gugu, for instance, was the name of an ancient ruler of Lydia, and Mogodore an old African seaport. Nikobo, the hippopotamus in Captain Salt in Oz, might have been referencing the Swahili word for the hippo, kiboko. Ojo‘s name is spelled the same as the Spanish word for “eye,” but I don’t see any particular relation between the character and eyes. I don’t know that there are any real patterns in the weirder names, but there are common elements in some of them. The double-O is also quite common in Ozian names, as in Oogaboo, Yoop, and Woot. Thompson was particularly fond of names ending in “roo,” like Potaroo, King Sizzeroo, Sleeperoo, Blufferroo, and the pirate ship Blunderoo. In addition to Ojo, other palindromic names in the series include Ugu and Buzzub. L. Frank Baum names a Winkie man Wiljon in Lost Princess, and Ruth Plumly Thompson gives the Wizard of Oz a butler named Fredjon in Ozoplaning. Kabumpo frequently uses the expression “don’t be a Gooch,” probably just intended as a somewhat sillier way of saying “goose,” but we later learn that there’s a Zamagoochie Mountain in the Gillikin Country (that name is particular sounds like it’s a play on some Native American place names) and that a zazagooch is the loudest snoring animal in Oz. The Sultan of Samandra promotes Chinda the seer (whose own name rhymes with Glinda’s) to Grand Bozzywoz, and “Bozzywog” and “Bozwokel” are both used as insults in Handy Mandy. That same book has the Royal Ox mention that his original name was Boz. If Oz means “great and good,” is there some connection to that in all this Boz business? I know Aaron Adelman has done some research in this department, although I think he goes a bit too far in trying to translate names that obviously have English roots, like “Soforth.” Speaking of which, I wonder if the Soforth family is related to Peter Cetera.

As I’ve seen pointed out before, Wizard really doesn’t name very many of its characters or places, instead often relying on descriptions. As far as non-American characters go, there’s Boq, Glinda, Gayelette, and Quelala. The names Munchkin, Winkie, and Quadling are also introduced, the first sounding a bit German and the last presumably having Latin roots. Michael Patrick Hearn reports in Annotated Wizard that early drafts of the stage play called the Tin Woodman’s old lover Beatrice Fairfax, presumably taken from a popular advice column of the day; and the Soldier with Green Whiskers Timothy Alfalfa, after two kinds of hay. When he finally named these characters in the actual books, he gave them the much odder names of Nimmie Amee and Omby Amby, respectively. It’s been proposed that the former could mean either “too much love” or “never loved,” but it’s not entirely clear. The stage play’s name for the Good Witch of the North is Locasta, which is an actual name, but makes me think of Oedipus’ mother and wife Jocasta. It also provides the name Pastoria for the former King of Oz, and this name sounds pretty Latin. Unlike, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’s rather strict naming rules, Baum and his successors appear to have drawn inspiration from just about everywhere in coming up with Ozian names. And I think this does fit, as Oz, like the United States, is a mix of many different cultures. Even if they speak American English there today, there are hints in names and other such words of influence from many different languages. Mind you, if you asked an Ozite about the roots of their language, they’d probably say they were at the bottoms of the book trees.

One final language oddity that I have to mention involves Royal Book, in which the Scarecrow arrives on the Silver Island, a subterranean land with similarities to China and Japan. When he first arrives, he is aware that the people there are speaking a foreign language, but he can understand it anyway. Later, he gives Happy Toko one of Professor Wogglebug’s Language Pills, explaining that it will enable the Silver Islander to speak and understand Ozish. Shortly after that, however, Thompson pretty much just gives up, and says, “Now by some magic which even I cannot explain, the people from Oz found they could understand all that was being said.” Come on, there has to have been SOME better way to get past that issue, right?

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9 Responses to The Roots of Language in Oz

  1. Good article! Do you have a photographic memory, by the way? I ask because it would’ve taken me an entire day of research to recall all the references you list!

    At any rate, I wonder if the Wogglebug’s pills are derived from John Dough’s Great Elixir? We know there was communication and probably trade between Oz and Hiland/Loland.

    • Nathan says:

      I’m not sure my memory is photographic so much as bizarre in terms of the details I remember. It’s pretty good when it comes to the Oz books, although I’ll usually double-check with the books before writing something.

      I suppose the Wogglebug could have gotten a sample of John’s gingerbread and analyzed it.

    • Nathan says:

      True, and Baum was a fan of Dickens. Jack Snow even suggests at the beginning of Who’s Who that this could have been the inspiration for the name of the country. It’s also the name of Ozma’s grandfather, at least according to Ray Powell.

  2. Darrell says:

    Nice research!
    I imagine with the Silver Islanders they were speaking “Ozish” with a very different accent and dialect but after being around it long enough the people from Oz just became used to it.
    I’m sure we’ve all met someone with a thick accent and it takes us time to even realize they are speaking English (thick Cajun accents come to mind.)
    I’m wondering now how many Oz names are onomatopoeias. I recently found out that in Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore is a play on the British pronunciation of Heehaw, so maybe Oz has some names like that.

    • Nathan says:

      That they really speak a dialect of Ozish on the Silver Island is something I’ve considered before, although it doesn’t really fit the East Asian theme.

  3. J. L. Bell says:

    Wonderful Wizard introduces one more named character in Oz: Mr. Joker of the China Country.

  4. Pingback: Etymology in Oz | VoVatia

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