Editor’s note: This post was originally published on August 23, 2008, and substantially revised and republished on August 6, 2012.
Isaac. Elijah. Noah. Choosing son’s name from the Good Book has been all the rage in recent years. So why have so few parents have rediscovered this one?
Thanks to Rocking Fetal for suggesting today’s Name of the Day: Abel.
You don’t even have to look far into the Bible before you find the tale of Abel and his big brother Cain – it’s right there in Genesis. It’s not exactly a warm and fuzzy tale. Abel is the world’s first murder victim, at the hand of his jealous brother.
The name’s origins and meaning are open to debate. Possibilities include:
- The Hebrew hevel – breath. Some argue that the word signifies something that is hard to capture or express.
- The Assyrian ablu, son, is another possible source.
- Others suggest that the sad story of Cain and Abel was borrowed from a Sumerian tale about the conflict between shepherds (represented by Abel) and farmers (Team Cain). There is an Arabic word that may have meant herdsman back in the day – ibil – and could’ve influenced Abel’s name.
- He might have evolved separately as a short form of Albert or Abelard.
Abel shares his sound with the word able, from the Latin habere, to hold. Over the years, it has evolved to mean skilled, capable, qualified. It’s a positive association, even if it’s not etymologically linked.
The name has been bestowed steadily throughout history, and was a favorite of the Puritans. Notable figures include:
- Saint Abel lived in the 700s and served as Bishop of Reims.
- King Abel of Denmark reigned in the 13th century.
- Abel Tasman explored the world in the 1640s and lent his surname to Tasmania.
- Charles Dickens’ 1861 novel Great Expectations included the character Abel Magwitch, a key figure in Pip’s story.
- French film director Abel Gance worked in the 1920s.
He’s also a surname. You’ll find an Abel crater on the moon, named for German astrophysicist Tom Abel. The equivalent of a Nobel prize in mathematics is the Abel Prize, bestowed annually by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and named in honor of celebrated 19th century Norwegian mathematician Niels Abel.
While Abel was never as common as John or James, it never fell out of use completely. He’s appeared in the US Top 1000 every year except 1905. In 2008, he ranked #360, about where he’d stood for two decades.
Today, Abel is on the upswing. He climbed to #237 in 2011, boosted in part by comedy power couple Will Arnett and Amy Poehler. Their younger son was named Abel in 2010. He’s also the name of Jax’s son on Sons of Anarchy. The baby’s kidnapping and eventual return are a major part of the second and third seasons, which aired in 2009 and 2010.
While some may find Abel’s status as victim hard to overlook, there’s far more to the name than the Biblical reference. Abel sounds smart and unexpected. He shares the popular long a sound of Mason and Jayden, but he doesn’t seem especially trendy. With choices like Jeremiah, Josiah, and Levi in the US Top 100, Abel doesn’t feel especially religious, either. If you’re after a name that is on-trend, straightforward, and yet not overly used, he’s a great option. He’s also portable, used in most European languages.
Just don’t name his brother Cain.