How do you win a Nobel Prize?
Go ask Alice.
Canadian author Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in literature Oct. 10.
And Linda Lavin, star of the television sitcom “Alice,” turns 76 today.
Alice was originally a short form of Adalheidis (Adelaide), a Germanic name combining adal, “noble,” with heidis, “sort” or “type.”
Alice was a favorite with Normans in medieval France. By the time they invaded England in 1066, Alice and Adelaide were considered separate names.
In England, Alice became hugely popular. English historian George Redmonds found Alice was the most common woman’s name in poll tax records collected from 1377 to 1381.
The first famous English Alice payed that tax. Alice Perrers (1348-1400) became King Edward III’s mistress in 1363. After Edward’s wife, Philippa, died in 1369, he paraded Alice before court in a golden dress wearing the late queen’s jewels, calling her “The Lady of the Sun.” Alice skillfully used her royal connections to become a wealthy landowner.
When parish baptismal records began in 1538, Alice was still ranked fourth.
In the early 1800s, Alice went out of fashion. Victorian authors, though, were fascinated by medieval chivalry and began to use medieval names for characters. Alice was one of the first they revived.
Victoria became queen in 1837. That same year Edward Bulwer-Lytton, one of the most popular Victorian novelists, published “Ernest Maltravers.” Its sequel, “Alice, or the Mysteries,” came out in 1838.
When Victoria’s second daughter was born in 1843, she remembered a conversation with Lord Melbourne, the prime minister in her first four years as queen, in which he said Alice was his favorite name. She named the princess Alice in his honor.
Lytton’s novel and Princess Alice inspired other parents to name daughters Alice, including Anglican priest Henry Liddell and his wife, Lorina, who named their fourth child Alice in 1852.
Charles Dodgson, who wrote under the pen name Lewis Carroll, was friends with the Liddells and told stories to their children. One of these, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” was published in 1865.
“Wonderland” and its 1871 sequel, “Through the Looking Glass,” quickly became among the most famous children’s books of all time. Though Carroll didn’t start the fashion for Alice, his character made it seem perfect for a little girl for decades.
Alice began skyrocketing in the United States even before Carroll’s books. The 1850 census found 25,090 Alices. This almost tripled to 74,240 in 1860. The Alices then more than doubled to 171,812 by 1870.
When Social Security’s yearly baby name lists start in 1880, Alice ranked eighth.
The name gradually dropped in the 20th century, falling out of top 200 by 1971. But then it had a brief upswing. This was probably because of Beatrice Sparks’ novel “Go Ask Alice,” which subsequently became a television movie. The title comes from Jefferson Airplane’s song “White Rabbit,” which compares Carroll’s “Wonderland” scene where Alice grows tall after eating magic cake to the effects of hallucinogenic drugs.
Ellen Burstyn won an Oscar for playing the title character in the 1974 film “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More.” Linda Lavin’s television “Alice,” based on the film, premiered in 1976. Though the popular sitcom lasted until 1985, it didn’t stop the name’s fall. Instead it probably cemented the image of Alice as a name for a middle-aged woman rather than a baby.
The most famous celebrity Alice of the 1980s was male rock star Alice Cooper, born Vincent Furnier in 1948. He chose the name Alice Cooper because he thought it sounded innocent and wholesome, making a memorable contrast to his on-stage outrageous “shock rock” persona.
Alice’s derivatives Alicia and Allison almost replaced it in popularity in the 1990s. Its lowest rank, 444th, came in 2002.
The last decade, though American parents have suddenly rediscovered Alice. The name is shooting up as quickly as the “Wonderland” character did when she ate the cake. A total of 2,480 Alices arrived in 2012, ranking the name 127th. By 2030, Alice may well be a top 10 name once again.