Language Log asks: Mari Sandoz

« previous post | next post »

In preparation for my run across Nebraska during the month of June, I'm boning up on the land, culture, and history of the state.  It wasn't long in my researches before I encountered the esteemed writer Marie Sandoz (1896-1966).  Hers is one of the most touching stories about a writer, nay, a human being, that I have ever read.  She has much to tell us about her language background and preferences, and how she had to struggle with her publishers to retain them in the face of standardization.

She became one of the West's foremost writers, and wrote extensively about pioneer life and the Plains Indians.

Marie Susette Sandoz was born on May 11, 1896 near Hay Springs, Nebraska, the eldest of six children born to Swiss immigrants, Jules and Mary Elizabeth (Fehr) Sandoz. Until the age of 9, she spoke only German. Her father was said to be a violent and domineering man, who disapproved of her writing and reading. Her childhood was spent in hard labor on the home farm, and she developed snow blindness in one eye after a day spent digging the family's cattle out of a snowdrift.

She graduated from the eighth grade at the age of 17, secretly took the rural teachers' exam, and passed. She taught in nearby country schools without ever attending high school. At the age of eighteen, Sandoz married a neighboring rancher, Wray Macumber. She was unhappy in the marriage, and in 1919, citing "extreme mental cruelty," divorced her husband and moved to Lincoln.

For the next sixteen years, Mari held a variety of low-paying jobs, while writing—to almost no success—under her married name, Marie Macumber. Despite her lack of a high school diploma, she managed to enroll at the University of Nebraska, thanks to a sympathetic dean. During those years, she claimed to have received over a thousand rejection slips for her short stories.

The Sand Hills of Western Nebraska

In 1928, when she received word her father was dying, she visited her family, and was stunned by his last request: he asked her to write his life story. She began extensive research on his life, and documented his decision to become a pioneer, his hard work chiselling out a life on the prairie, his leadership within the pioneer community, and his friendship with the local Indians in the area. The resulting book was Old Jules, published under the name Mari Sandoz, which she had resumed using in 1929.

In 1933, malnourished and in poor health, she moved back home to the Sand Hills to stay with her mother. Every major publishing house in the United States had rejected Old Jules. Before she left Lincoln, Sandoz tossed over 70 of her manuscripts into a wash tub in her backyard and burned them.

Yet she continued to write, and began work on her next novel, Slogum House, a gritty and realistic tale about a ruthless Nebraska family. By January 1934, she returned to Lincoln, and got a job at the Nebraska State Historical Society, where she became associate editor of Nebraska History magazine.

In 1935, she received word that her revised version of Old Jules had won a non-fiction contest held by Atlantic Press, after fourteen rejections. Finally, her book would be published. Before that happened, however, she had to fight her editor to retain the distinctive Western idiom in which she had written the book, as her publishers wanted her to standardize the English used in the book.

The book was well received critically and commercially when it was issued, and became a Book of the Month Club selection. Some readers were shocked at her unromantic depiction of the Old West, as well as her strong language and realistic portrayal of the hardships of frontier life.


What galvanized me to write this post is that, although I had learned Sandoz was of Swiss extraction and I knew about the Swiss pharmaceutical giant of that name and Swiss sculptor Édouard-Marcel Sandoz (1881-1971), her surname didn't sound like it was of Swiss derivation to me:

Swiss French and French (mainly Doubs): from the ancient Germanic personal name Sandwald, composed of the elements sanths 'true' + wald 'rule'.
My question to the Language Log readership:  how does one get Sandoz out of that?
Bonus:  Nebraska and its bug eaters

U.S. territory organized 1854, admitted as a state 1867, from a native Siouan name for the Platte River, either Omaha ni braska or Oto ni brathge, both literally "water flat." The modern river name is from French rivière platte, which means "flat river." Related: Nebraskan.

Bug eaters, a term applied derisively to the inhabitants of Nebraska by travellers on account of the poverty-stricken appearance of many parts of the State. If one living there were to refuse to eat bugs, he would, like Polonius, soon be "not where he eats but where he is eaten." [Walsh, 1892]

Selected readings


  1. Coby said,

    May 20, 2024 @ 7:06 pm

    The -oz ending is found in surnames originating in the formerly Arpitan-speaking area, which includes most of French Switzerland and what was formerly the Rhone-Alpes region of France: Berlioz, Mermoz…

  2. Michael Victor Ryan said,

    May 21, 2024 @ 1:19 am

    Fun fact: The Swiss company that used to make LSD was called Sandoz Laboratories.

  3. Chester Draws said,

    May 21, 2024 @ 1:26 am

    Is it some form of "son of"?

    I understand Spanish has the suffix "oz" with that meaning, although usually "ez".

  4. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    May 21, 2024 @ 1:53 am

    many -aud and -ot ending surnames in French-speaking areas of Switzerland

  5. Martin Schwartz said,

    May 21, 2024 @ 4:15 am

    @Chester Draws: most Spanish names with -ez are of (Visi)gothic origin,
    where the -ez is indeed patronymic.
    Martin Schwartz

  6. Robledo said,

    May 21, 2024 @ 6:45 am

    While most spanish surnames with –ez are indeed of germanic origin (Gutiérrez = Walters!), many stem from latin first names (Martínez, Domínguez) and some from Bask ones (Vázquez, Velázquez). The etymology of the suffix itself remains a mystery (preroman? Bask?).

  7. bukwyrm said,

    May 21, 2024 @ 7:14 am

    german: Wald = forest ; (ver)walten = regulate, decide; Sandwald may just as well be 'sand(y)forest', or, getting frisky with the 'sand' part, 'Forest of shoe-wood'; How the wald->oz shift came to be (apart from a linguistic cyclone) is a mystery, though has a altogether other etymology, though equally nebulous (sandoz from salt + novalis (?)) — in my home country the very local (+-5km) variation in dialects led to all kinds of different names precipitating from the oral tradition once people started writing them down.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    May 21, 2024 @ 7:20 am

    The power of Language Log.

    Thanks, everybody!

  9. jin defang said,

    May 21, 2024 @ 7:30 am

    I, too, thought immediately of wald=wood, very common among my Swabian ancestors. No matter, a wonderful portrait of a fascinating individual.

  10. martin schwartz said,

    May 21, 2024 @ 7:22 pm

    @Robledo: I suspect the patronymic Span. -ez and Portuguese -es
    go back to the Gothic genitive suffix which is cognate with Eng. -'s,
    and spead to non-Gotihc names.@bukwyrm: Yes, Sand- may be
    'sand', but Old Germanic sanths 'true' did in effect exist.
    Btw Yiddish is one of the German dialects, so to speak, in which
    the Proto-Indo-European *m of the 'sand' word is still preserved:
    Martin Schwartz

RSS feed for comments on this post