The baby name Abel feels friendly, capable, and enduring.
Thanks to Rocking Fetal for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
BOOK of GENESIS
The baby name Abel comes straight out of the Old Testament, in the very beginning.
In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve have two sons, Cain and Abel.
And the brothers? They invent sibling rivalry, and Abel becomes the world’s first murder victim.
While it’s not a warm and fuzzy tale, it certainly gives the name plenty of history.
The meaning is usually given as breath, from the Hebrew hevel.
Others possibilities exist, and it’s possible that the story of Cain and Abel was influenced by a traditional Sumerian folk tale that pre-dates the Old Testament. But it’s equally true that the Cain and Abel story has influenced plenty of other stories over the millennia.
The baby name Abel sounds just like the word able.
No connection, though. At least not etymologically speaking.
Instead, able comes from the Latin habere – to hold, which led to habilis – easily handled. It became hable in Old French, which meant capable.
The ‘h’ remains in some English words, like rehabilitate – restore to its former condition. But it’s able, not hable.
Regardless of the separate origins, the word makes us think good things for the baby name Abel, too. It suggests that an Abel is skillful and clever, an intelligent and capable person.
SAINT, KING, EXPLORER
A handful of famous bearers demonstrate that the baby name Abel has been in steady use across the centuries.
The future Saint Abel served as Bishop of Reims in the 700s.
In the 1200s, King Abel briefly reigned in Denmark.
Perhaps the most famous figure was Abel Tasman.
The Dutch explorer became the first European to reach New Zealand and the Fiji Islands during the seventeenth century. The Australian island state of Tasmania is named in his honor.
And then there’s an enduring fictional use of Abel.
In Charles Dickens’ 1861 novel Great Expectations, Abel Magwitch serves as Pip’s anonymous benefactor.
But none of these are top of mind circa 2021.
TOM and GANCE and THE WEEKND
The twentieth century gave us some additional Abels.
There’s French film director Abel Gance, who worked in the 1920s.
German astrophysicist Tom Abel might not be a household name. But you’ll find an Abel crater on the moon, named in his honor.
Fast-forward to the twenty-first century.
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. It was first awarded in 2003.
And singer, songwriter, and producer The Weeknd started out life as Abel Tesfaye.
BY the NUMBERS
The baby name Abel has appeared in the US Top 1000 every year since 1880, the first year for which data is available, with the exception of 1905.
That’s not nearly as classic as James or John, but it speaks to the name’s long and steady history of use.
The twenty-first century brought some high-profile uses of the baby name Abel. Amy Poehler and Will Arnett welcomed a son named Abel in 2010. Perhaps more significantly, Sons of Anarchy gave the name to Jax’s infant son. The baby’s kidnapping and eventual return drove much of the story during the second and third seasons, in 2009/2010.
Accordingly, the baby name Abel rose dramatically in use.
In the year 2000, the name ranked #352. By 2010, it reached #293, and peaked at #124 in 2015.
As of 2020, the baby name Abel slipped to #181.
That’s still reasonably familiar, but far from the heights of Biblical boy names like Elijah and Noah.
Friendly and accessible, the baby name Abel is immediately recognizable as a given name with long history. But it sounds like so many word names popular right now. It’s less intense than Legend or Maverick. It feels – and is – far more old school.
It’s a hit a plateau in popularity, which might make the baby name Abel especially attractive. It’s broadly familiar, but not too common. And it melds centuries of use with a very twenty-first century sensibility – an appealing combination for a child’s name.
What do you think of the baby name Abel?
This post was originally published on August 23, 2008, substantially revised and republished on August 6, 2012, and again on September 7, 2021.
I love the name!! I have an Abel. He’s a wonderful little boy. I know this post is old but I enjoyed the read. Thanks!
I really, really like Abel! I don’t know if we’ll ever use him as we are planning to use Atlas at this point and have other brother names picked out that are ranked ahead of Abel, but who knows? I’d love to meet a little Abel. Great post!
Abel’s never been one of my favorites. I can’t help but think of one of my old pastor’s favorite worship songs (“He is Able”). I do however like Abelard, which I encountered as a young girl reading Dodie Smith’s “I Capture the Castle”. Very dashing.
Wow, I didn’t realize I suggested this all the way back in 2008. This was the name I had picked out for my 2010 baby, and I don’t ever remember questioning it. Of course, that baby ended up being a girl. 🙂 I still consider the name from time to time, but it sounds punny (think willing and able) with my daughter’s name. I’m not sure I could do that. I was surprised with Abel’s leap in 2011 because no one ever seemed very enthusiastic about it. I didn’t think Amy Poehler had that much pull either. I really bet it was Son’s of Anarchy. I’ve never seen it, but I’ve noticed FX shows tend to boost names. A friend’s sister used it this past year. I know I would have been happy with it if I used it, but these days I think I prefer Abraham a little bit more.
Thanks so much, AM! I’m in love w/ this name thanks to YCCII’s suggestion of it as an alternative to Abram. It’s now at the very top of my list. I never gave it much thought thanks to the fratricide issue. It took me a while to consider it usable. One of my favorite aspects of the name is its long and steady history.
My main concern w/ the name has moved past wondering if my boys would string an Abel-brother up by his onesie to the issue of spelling. Considering the problems I’ve had w/ Ezra – totally unexpected by me – I think he would be Able to many name civilians. I think I could live w/ this. I actually like the able link. It makes it sound almost like a male virtue name.
Did you notice the mention of Ezra? YCCII certainly did. There are actually evangelists in my family, so I think Abel would be a natural addition. 😀 I also believe that because of the less common biblical names gaining ground, they wouldn’t illicit the *gasp* they did at one time. Weren’t Ethan and Joshua craaaazy back in the day? Elijah, Isaiah, Josiah, and Caleb are all pretty freakin’ high. I was shocked at the placement of Malachi and Ezekiel on the SSA. Pretty soon, those that want something “different” will need to go w/ Naphtali. Thank again. 🙂
I think Another encapsulated it when she said “I put Abel with Ezra.” Rockingfetal, I’m telling you, it’s perfect!
I like him. Not enough to use him, mind you but I find him charming. I’m dismayed by all the Cain/Cane/Kain/Kanes I see online. “Cool to be bad” has never been something I’ve bought into. “Hip to be square”, that’s me. 😀
Abel’s strong, simple, masculine & handsome. Rather snappy too. I think Abel’s pretty cool, himself.
Eh. I don’t love it. I know a lot of people that like Cain/Kaine/Kane right now, interestingly enough. I put Abel with Ezra, Ira, Japheth, Jethro, Isaiah, Elijah, and those types. Too biblical for me. I like my biblical names to be more common: Daniel, Joahua, Ethan, Nathaniel, Simon, Jacob, etc. The others sound like the children of an evangelist. Not for me. Too far out.
I think the link to the Sumerian story is pretty interesting! Thanks for digging that up.