Perhaps no other children’s story resonates more than “The Wizard of Oz.”
The movie starring Judy Garland still appears on television several times a year. Families still read the L. Frank Baum book it’s based on.
And the Omaha Children’s Museum has had a special Oz exhibit, “Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” for several months, allowing kids to step inside a tornado and dress up as their favorite character. Time is growing short to catch the exhibit — its last day is Sept. 9.
Given the story’s popularity, most everyone knows that the Kansas girl who gets swept to Oz is Dorothy Gale.
Dorothy is the English form of Dorothea, a Greek name combining doron, “gift,” and theos, “god,”
The first famous Dorothy was St. Dorothea of Cappadocia, a Christian martyred in 313. According to legend, a lawyer taunted Dorothea before her execution, telling her to send him fruit from the Garden of Paradise. Later an angel appeared and gave him three apples, prompting his conversion.
In medieval times, St. Dorothea and her name were popular in Italy and Germany. A German namesake was St. Dorothea of Montau (1347-1394). That Dorothea, abused by her husband for having religious visions, was later venerated as patron saint of Prussia.
This kept Dorothea popular in Germany. It’s also remembered there because Dorothea Erxleben (1715-1762) was the first German woman physician.
The first examples of English Dorothys didn’t show up until around 1450. It then quickly became fashionable, ranking between 10th and 16th for girls born between 1538 and 1700.
One of Dorothy’s nicknames, Doll, became the word for the children’s toy around 1700. Other common nicknames, Dot and Dottie, reflect that before 1800, Dorothy’s last syllable often was pronounced as “tea.”
After 1700, Dorothy’s use fell, partly because “doll” had come to mean “loose woman.” Puritans also avoided it since they associated names of non-Biblical saints with Roman Catholicism.
Puritan influence made Dorothy even less common in the United States than in England. The 1850 U.S. census includes 5,396 Dorothys. The 1851 census of the United Kingdom, when total national populations were similar, found 14,865 Dorothys.
Dorothy continued to drop in the United States after 1850. The 1860 census found 4,194 Dorothys. Twenty-five percent were born in Germany, compared to less than four percent of all Americans.
The German-born Dorothys probably were Dorotheas back in Germany. In the 1880 U.S. census, there were only 2,839 Dorothys and 3,351 Dorotheas.
Dorothea’s win over Dorothy in 1880 was a combination of German immigrants and American-born girls who’d been named for Dorothea Dix (1802-1887). Dix exposed cruel treatment toward the mentally ill in 1843, becoming the most famous woman of her generation.
Back in England, Dorothy began reviving around 1870. Alfred Cellier’s comic opera “Dorothy,” which broke the record for longest-running British musical in 1889, helped it boom. In 1881, there were 16,577 Dorothys in England and Wales; in 1901, 118,396.
Dorothy began rising in the United States around 1885. It became a top hundred name in 1890. In the 1900 census, there were 34,013 American Dorothys, most young girls.
L. Frank Baum published “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in 1900. Baum and his wife, Maud Gage, had four sons and had always wanted a daughter. It seemed they would at least have a niece when Maud’s brother Clarkson and his wife had a girl in June 1898.
Tragically, Dorothy Gage died at the age of five months. Maud was distraught, and Frank probably named Dorothy Gale after little Dorothy Gage.
“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” became a huge bestseller. Baum wrote a whole series of Oz books and became a wealthy man, the J.K. Rowling of his day.
Dorothy peaked in 1920 as the second most popular name in the United States, keeping that rank until 1928. This was just the time when little girls who had read about Dorothy Gale when she was first popular would be having their own daughters.
Dorothy stayed in the top 10 in the United States until 1940, and in the top hundred until 1962. It continued to fall until it left the top thousand in 2007. Though baby boomers all knew Dorothy Gale from repeated TV presentations of the 1939 movie during their childhoods, they wouldn’t name daughters after her. They had too many grandmothers and aunts named Dorothy to think of it as a good baby name.
Dorothy bottomed out in 2009, when only 222 American girls were given the name. In 2011, though, it increased to 273 and was back in the top thousand, at 973rd place. Dorothy may have just begun another revival.
Oz fans know that the full name of Dorothy’s Auntie Em is Emily. This was a good choice for the character, since in 1900, the average American Emily would have been around 50.
Emily was the number one name for American girls born between 1996 and 2007. If Dorothy continues its rise at the same rate it did in the 19th century, it will peak again around 2046.
So once again, lots of little Dorothys could watch “The Wizard of Oz” with an Auntie Em.