What’s in a name?

We all know that the wellies we might wear to go on walks through muddy fields are named after the first Duke of Wellington, the “Iron Duke”. wellies_with_flowersPerhaps less well known is the link between the mac – in British English, at any rate – that we might also wear and its inventor, the deviser of the waterproof cloth from which macs are made, Charles Macintosh (1766–1843), the Scottish inventor who patented the cloth. Many units of scientific measurement, both everyday and more specialized, are named after their discoverers: the Italian physicist Count Alessandro Volta gave us volts, the Scottish engineer James Watt gave us, er, … watts, and the Belfast-born Lord Kelvin gave his name to the units in which absolute temperature is measured.

Such words, derived from someone’s name, are technically called eponyms, a word created in the 19th century from the Greek epōnumos “given as a name, giving one’s name to someone or something”, from epi “upon” + onoma “name” (ἐπώνυμος; ἐπί + ὄνομα, Aeolic ὄνυμα name). The same Greek word for “name” has given English also anonymous and synonym(ous). And when people refer to the eponymous hero of such and such a novel, e.g. Fielding’s Tom Jones, they mean that the title of the novel is its protagonist’s name.


A male-dominated field

As in so many areas, when it comes to items of apparel [*] or ornament there is a severe gender imbalance. While the list of male-named clothes includes wellies, cardigans, knickers, leotards, raglan sleeves, Nehru jackets, Mao collars, Van Dyke collars, Prince Alberts, etc., the roll call of those named after women is rather shorter. One that easily springs to mind is Alice band.

Alice band – a flexible hairband of cloth, elastic, plastic, or other material that women and girls wear to keep their hair in place.

The Alice in question is the protagonist of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) [AAIW] and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found there [TL-G] 1871. The term was obviously inspired by (Sir John) Tenniel’s (1820-1914) illustrations, but was first recorded only as late as 1944, at least according to the OED.

Now you see it, now you don’t.
Alice in Wonderland vs Through the Looking Glass

In Tenniel’s illustrations (woodblock engravings) for AAIW, Alice is not once portrayed wearing anything in her hair. In the whole text the word hair is only mentioned seven times, including at the Mad Tea-Party (often known as the “Mad Hatter’s Tea Party”, though Carroll did not use the phrase “mad hatter”) alice_b-w-teaparty

“Your hair wants cutting,”

said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.

“You should learn not to make personal remarks,”

Alice said with some severity;

“it’s very rude.”

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was,

“Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”


Nearly at the very end of the story, Alice’s older sister (who is nameless) also falls into a dream, in which “she could hear the very tones of her [Alice’s] voice, and see that queer little toss of her head to keep back the wandering hair that would always get into her eyes”.

In TL-G, where Alice’s hair plays a more important role, aliceAlice is uniformly presented as having her formerly unruly hair kept in place by what looks like a broad ribbon tied in a neat bow. Such a hairstyle seems to have been standard for Victorian girls at the time.

In 1890, Tenniel selected, adapted and added colour to 20 of his original illustrations from AAIW for a nursery version (complete set of images at the British Library: here). Perhaps by this stage Alice’s ribbon or headband had become an integral part of her image: at any rate, Tenniel added one, which the original illustration lacked, as well as making changes to Alice’s dress. [***]

Illustration from The Nursery Alice.
Illustration from AAIW.
Illustration from AAIW.

A male accessory?

But Alice bands are not worn only by women or girls. Footballers with long hair also wear them to keep their locks out of their faces when playing the beautiful game. The first sleb footballer to have worn one seems to have been uber-metrosexual David Beckham alice_band_Beckham_Hair8. Others have emulated him, including Ronaldo. But the fashion is still hardly mainstream: when Gareth Bale wore one, it was newsworthy enough – at least in the eyes of the journo who wrote it – to merit comment on The Independent’s website.

Tangentially, there is also a question of definition: when does an “Alice band” become a “headband”? It must be all to do with the width of the band, as in this photo of Nadal.


After all, what man is going to buy an Alice band when he can buy a headband?

[*] Another of those myriad British/US English differences. Apparel sounds quaint & poetic in BrE, but is a standard word in US English used by shops where BrE would use “clothing”: a sale on summer apparel for women. There is even a verb: a designer who regularly apparels several of the presenters at the Oscar ceremonies. (Both examples from Merriam-Webster online.)

[**] Answer to the Hatter’s riddle: Lewis Carroll’s Author’s Note: Christmas, 1896. “Enquiries have so often been addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter’s Riddle … can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, viz. ‘Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat ; and it is never put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however, is merely an after-thought : the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all.”

[***] It seems that Carroll gave Tenniel very precise instructions about the illustrations. Until I did some online digging for this blog, I was unfamiliar with Carroll’s own illustrations for the forerunner of AAIW, Alice’s Adventures under Ground. Many of them foreshadow the better-known Tenniel versions, as here, and illustrate how a great graphic artist can turn a rough sketch into a compelling image:

Lewis Carroll's sketch.
Lewis Carroll’s sketch.
Tenniel's version.
Tenniel’s version.


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