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.

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