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Comeback of name Alice is a wonder

Posted Wednesday, Sep. 12, 2012  comments  Print Reprints
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With a number of classic names taking a downward turn these days, it's nice to see that a few are going in the other direction -- William, James, Charlotte -- and one that we're especially happy to see making a return: Alice.

Alice is unique among the body of traditional, classic girls' names. It is more feminine and dainty than Mary and Helen, more substantive than Ann or Jane or Jean, yet with more lightness, sweetness and innocent charm than Margaret and Katharine.

From the late 19th century through the 1920s, Alice was an enormously popular top 20 name -- reaching as high as No. 8 several times -- then slowly made its way down until 2005, when it suddenly reversed direction again. Tina Fey named her baby Alice the following year, and from then on its upward trend has accelerated, with the name getting to 142nd place last year.

One of its assets is the plethora of wonderful namesakes, both real and fictional. For one thing, there are a disproportionate number of important Alices among modern female writers, as in Alice Walker, Alice Sebold, Alice Hoffman, Alice Adams, Alice Munro, Alice McDermott and Alice Elliott Dark. In the 1940s, there was Technicolor musical star Alice Faye, and then, in the art world, painter Alice Neel, plus food innovator Alice Waters, jazz pianist Alice Coltrane and many others.

Historically, President Theodore Roosevelt had both a wife and a daughter named Alice -- a daughter who was a colorful Washington character through her long life -- and there have been some British royals as well, in particular Queen Victoria's daughter Princess Alice Maud Mary, whose 1843 birth popularized the name in the U.K.

When it comes to fiction, there is only one quintessential Alice. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and their early book illustrations by John Tenniel and others (later Disneyfied) gave many of us our image of the name -- that of a young girl with long, flowing hair, sweet but spunky, curious and adventurous -- and it was this character, based on the real-life Alice Liddell, that sparked an even greater fad for the name.

The old song Alice Blue Gown, inspired by Alice Roosevelt, added to the sweet vision of the name. There have been Alices galore in other works, from Shakespeare's Henry V to The Last of the Mohicans to the "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" sagas.

The innocent young girl image of the name went through some radical changes in the latter 20th century, starting with Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Alice was also embodied first by two hardscrabble, cynical working-class women in the TV sitcoms The Honeymooners and Alice, not to mention the housekeeper on The Brady Brunch, and then as a couple of rockers -- the male Alice Cooper (born Vincent) and the heavy metal/grunge group Alice in Chains.

Etymologically, Alice has had a long and convoluted history. In its earliest form, it was Adalheidis, an ancient German word used as a royal title and also the source of Adelaide, followed by the French Adelais and Adelice, which was shortened during the 12th century to Alicia, and then seen as Alison, in Chaucer's 14th-century Canterbury Tales.

The Alison/Allison form began to sound much more modern than Alice at a certain point: Allison entered the top 50 in 1985, a year when Alice was only at 354. The Alicia version peaked in 1984 at No. 40, and led to the even more popular Alyssa, which reached as high as No. 11 in the 90s. Other forms over the years have included Aleydis, Adaliz, Alais, Adelicia, Aliz, Aaliz, Alia, Alix, Aeleis and Alys. We particularly like the Irish Gaelic Ailis, also found in the phonetic form Ailish.

At the moment, the deserving Alice is being revived all across the Western world: It is the top name in Sweden, a surprising No. 8 in Italy, and in the top 50 in England and Wales, France, Belgium and Australia. In Italian, Alice is pronounced al-LEE-chay, while the French version sounds more like our Elise and the German is ah-lit-za.

Nameberry is a baby-naming site produced by Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosenkrantz, co-authors of 10 bestselling baby name guides, including the newest, "Beyond Ave and Aiden: The Enlightened Guide to Naming Your Baby." See more at nameberry.com .

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