Name of the Day: Abigail

by appellationmountain on November 19, 2008

Dear Abby.

Over the years she’s been a Biblical bride, a lady’s maid and a sage font of wisdom. At the moment, she’s among the most popular names given to baby girls born in the US.

Thanks to Photoquilty and Emmy Jo for suggesting Abigail as our Name of the Day.

Abigail has her beginnings with the Hebrew Avigayil or Abhigayil. Avi means father, and gil means rejoice. They’re linked together in slightly different ways – father’s joy, my father rejoices and so on. The gist is this: Abigail is a daddy’s girl.

In the Bible, Abigail is also a dutiful wife. She’s married to a scoundrel – Nabal – who manages to tick off David. David’s plotting revenge when Abigail shows up on his doorstep to ask for forgiveness. It works. David realizes his plans were sinful; Nabal dies of a heart attack; and Abigail ends up marrying husband #2, David, shortly after.

Like many an Old Testament name, she went unused for centuries. There is no Saint Abigail, nor do any appear in the historical record until relatively recent times. But instead of a simple rediscovery story like so many Biblical monikers, Abigail’s tale has a twist.

Apparently, Abigail was among the earlier names Protestants plucked from the Good Book. In Christopher Marlowe’s 1590 Jew of Malta, she was the daughter. But by the 1600s, Abigail was frequently bestowed upon fictional servants. The Biblical Abigail referred to herself as a handmaid; the 1616 smash hit comedy The Scornful Lady included a loyal maid by the name.

Abigail became slang for housekeeper, nanny or lady’s maid. And so she was probably falling from popularity as the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock, considered downwardly mobile.

Still, there are Abigails in early colonial records and throughout early American history. We can’t forget First Lady Abigail Adams, born in the mid-1700s, or more notoriously, Abigail Williams from the Salem Witch Trials at the end of the 1600s.

While we often consider Abigail a restored classic, that’s not quite true. Emma and Grace were late-19th century chart-toppers, but Abigail rarely ranked in the Top 500. From 1907 to 1938, she left the rankings entirely. When she did return, it was inconsistent. Not until 1949 did she begin to climb.

For many years, diminutives Gail and Gayle were far more popular than the full name. Gale was used too, but normally for men.

So it wasn’t until the late 20th century that Abigail became a true favorite. She entered the US Top 100 in 1989. Today she stands at #8, and variant spellings Abagail, Abbigail, Abigale and Abigayle can all be found in the Top 1000.

It’s a highly visible name. Fictional First Lady Abigail Bartlett appeared on television’s West Wing; child actor Abigail Breslin is everywhere; and while the original Dear Abby has long since gone to her reward, the advice column remains popular. Call out “Abby” on a playground, and at least a few heads will turn.

Sadly, that’s Abby’s flaw. More than 121,000 girls have been named Abigail since 2000. She’s smart, she’s honest and she’s appealingly antique. But distinctive? Not really. But if the idea of your daughter being Abby G. or Tall Abby in elementary school troubles you not, this remains an attractive choice.


{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

DJAJS July 20, 2012 at 9:37 PM

I have an interesting history with this name. I was adopted, but my birth mother originally named me Abigail. After I was adopted, my parents changed my name to what it is.
I did not know about the name-switch until I was 18. However, when I was younger, around 3 or 4, I had a little baby doll. The moment I got her, I named her Abigail.
When I was in first grade, I came home in a fit and told my mom that I didn’t like my name. She asked me what other name I would possibly want, and I told her Abigail.
I forgot about that fit, and a few years later, I told her that I thought that Abigail was the prettiest name for a girl, and I wished it was my name.
I was far too young to remember being called Abigail, so this has always struck me as quite odd that I would feel such a strong connection to a name that I only bore for such a short time. I still think it’s much more beautiful than the name that I have grown up with.

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Lucia December 17, 2011 at 9:12 PM

I love abigail, since it’s Abby’s name on NCIS.

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Shannon November 22, 2008 at 3:13 PM

my best friend from childhood named her daughter Abigail and she goes by Abby. She’s about 14. Her sister is Maggie (don’t know if it’s short for anything) which I don’t like but does sound like a sister of Abby. By the way I changed my name legally also, years ago, and it was very difficult explaining to people. Especially since I changed my first and middle name and decided to use the middle name instead… And I cannot find the name change papers so I could not obtain another certified copy of my birth certificate. Now I wish I had chosen something else but I’m done with name changing.. my original name was Monique, which is supposed to be pronounced muh-NEEK (unstressed vowel in first syllable) as in French. But people say it mo-NEEK or worse, MO-neek and call you Mo or Monie (ick). As a kid I never liked it and was one of those kids who wanted a popular name.

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SophieGray November 22, 2008 at 4:02 AM

I just fing Abigail a little ‘beige’. She is a lovely name – very sweet, whilst still respectable – but I too find her a little dull. Surprisingly, there are quite a few Abby / Abbie’s running around [most under 15 yrs], but fewer Abigails. I’ve known at least 5 or so Abby/Abbie’s in my life, but NEVER an Abigail. Weird, huh?

Anyway, like others, I find her a little dull too – hence the beige – so she isn’t for me.

Corinne — I grew up with twins named Emma-Lea & Danni-Elle. I just couldn’t see what was wrong with Emily & Danielle?!

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Corinne November 20, 2008 at 11:58 AM

I ADORE Abigail! To me the name is so very adorable, and doesn’t sound old at all. I first heard Abigail on NCIS, in the form of Abby Sciuto’s official forename, and fell in love with the name.

I prefer Abby to Abbie/Aby/Abi/Gail/Gayle/Gaile and really dislike all other spellings of Abigail.

My parents have a neighbour who’s daughters are Abbie-Gayle, Emmie-Leigh, and Izzie-Belle, and it’s the same case as Lyndsey mentioned, they think that it’s a first and last name thing, and their real surname, Giampaglio or something, is just something tacked on to the end, like “, Jr.” or “III”.

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Emmy Jo November 20, 2008 at 4:05 AM

I love Abby/Abigail! I don’t think it’s at all dull. If it weren’t so popular right now, it would probably be at the top of my list.

I know what you mean about it not being quite as big a deal to have a popular name when it wasn’t so popular in your generation. I’m an Emily — when I was born, it was beginning to get popular, but I never had another Emily in my class. The only other Emily I knew was my friend’s little sister, and she was quite a few years younger than me. I think in my area, Emily’s popularity skyrocketed two years after I was born. I remember that in my eighth grade yearbook, I was the only 8th-grade Emily. There were no 7th-grade Emilys, but there were EIGHT Emilys in the 6th grade! If I had been born in this decade, I’d probably grow up hating my name and seeing it as way too common. As it is, though, I love it.

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appellationmountain November 19, 2008 at 8:12 PM

LOL, Lyndsay! And I agree with you Lola. These days Abigail feels a smidge dull. And yes, Shannon – Gail is stuck in the 50s, and I doubt she’ll be back anytime soon.

As it happens, Abigail is my name. Well – not exactly. I was born Amy Beth. I’ve talked before about hating sharing the name Amy with so many other girls. In fact, I have two 30-something neighbors called Amy. There’s *always* another Amy.

But with a mere seven letters, three syllables in my full name, there’s not much room to find an alternate. So I reduced further and became A.B. In fact, my sisters still call me AB. That evolved to Ab. By college, I was Amy and Ab – and liked the latter MUCH more. But it was clearly a nickname. Add one more syllable, and I was Abby – an uncommon name for someone born in 1973, even though it was gaining in use as I chose it.

After a few years of signing myself A.B. and dealing with guesses galore, I legally changed my name to Amy Abigail. It’s a tidy solution. People who have known me from childhood generally assume that my middle name has ALWAYS been Abigail. So I’m A. Abigail, which combined with my last name makes for a rather nice formal name. And while keeping my birth first name means that I’m still stuck answering to Amy at the bank and such, I don’t mind my vestigial A.

Overall, I think the thing about Abigail is that I rarely meet another 30-something with my name. Their daughters, sure. But for the entire decade of the 1970s, there were only about 7,000 girls called Abigail – versus nearly 270,000 Amys.

My advice to other name-changers is this: even when you hate your given name, the act of changing it is difficult to explain to others. I found it strangely jarring myself. And it takes FOREVER for it to shake out – Clio’s birth certificate needed to be sent back because they used my birth name instead of my legal name. So it’s best to find some way to bridge the two names – use a nickname for a while, choose a name that retains your old initials, something.

If I had it to do over again, I almost wish I’d found a way to be something more exciting. But working with those paltry seven letters, I’m not sure I could’ve done much better.

So that’s my take on Abigail. It’s nice to wear. It’s a respectable, responsible name. But you DO hear it a lot, and it’s not terribly exciting.

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Kelly February 19, 2014 at 7:28 PM

I know this is a REALLY old comment I’m replying to, but I know of someone else who was in a similar situation – had a non-marriage-related name change and there was confusion about how the name should be put down on a child’s birth certificate. As in your case the nurse who asked for the info erroneously believed it was always the mother’s name at birth regardless. After doing some research on the ‘net (and even emailing the state in question) it turns out that (in most states and in most cases) a legal name change for a reason outside of marriage (or the best allowable equivalent for same-sex couples) DOES change how a future (not necessarily already-born before the change) child’s birth certificate would show the mom’s name – as you found out the hard way.

The reason why they ask for a “maiden” or “birth” name is they don’t want the mom to put a married surname down (since it may change again because of divorce or remarriage, and provides more identifying information since otherwise the surname would typically be the same as the father’s). But if the change is due to a court action intended to permanently change the original birth name (as in the case of someone adopted, the wrong father assumed, or like with you a change to one’s given name – cases where an amended birth certificate for the subject themselves could typically be sought) then such changes should indeed be reflected (in the email I got back it said for this purpose one’s “birth name” is the name they’d have if they were never married and not necessarily the one given at birth, unlike the context usually used on name forums).

(Oddly enough the forms usually ask for the father’s current legal name, even if he did take his wife’s or other partner’s surname – I guess like other legal name changes that is still a rare enough occurrence that it isn’t always taken into account on the pre-printed forms. On the other hand, some states have partially resolved the issue by asking for the “mother’s name prior to first marriage” or something similar – in most cases where the name was changed in childhood or early adulthood that takes care of any questions, but there is still ambiguity in cases like yours where the name change took place [I assume – correct me if I’m wrong about you] after you were already married.)

Sorry if this was a long comment, but I thought I’d post it not just for you but anyone else on here who has changed or is thinking about changing their first/middle name (or their last name for reasons not related to marriage) so they know how to handle these situations without error. Basically, anytime a person or form asks for a “maiden” or “birth” name without clarification you ought to ask The Powers That Be how they want it if you’ve had any non-marital name changes (unless the context is obvious, like finding an adoption record, or someone you knew from school). (Of course for our non-U.S. readers it may be different in your country.)

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Shannon November 19, 2008 at 5:55 PM

not a bad name. One of the few names for which I like the nickname better than the full name – Abby. To me Gail still seems back in the 50s-60s (I am waiting to see if any of those names will come back in style).

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Lyndsay November 19, 2008 at 5:09 PM

My three-year-old niece’s name is Abigail… she thinks her first name is Abby and her last name is Gail.

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Lola November 19, 2008 at 4:04 PM

I’m too old to appreciate Abigail, or too literary. My first assocation is the “lady’s maid” slang. I’ve never found her particualrly attractive for myself but can see why she appeals to so many; and honestly? I find her completely inoffensive for the most part and in reality a tiny bit boring anymore. I dislike Abby as well, it makes me think of a church (Abbey) So by sound alone, I actually find Gail a refreshing choice again. I knew one as a kid, she lived down the street from my Babci, great friend until they moved the summer between 6th & 7th grades. I still think of her fondly.

All in all, Abigail’s an okay name. Not a trendy choice, not a daring choice but a nice, safe, rather bland but pretty choice. I can think of worse things to be named! :)

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