Depending on the era, the baby name Abigail brings to mind a Biblical bride, a lady’s maid, ora sage font of wisdom.
Thanks to Photoquilty and Emmy Jo for suggesting our Baby 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 wealthy 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.
The Old Testament character proves herself courageous and humble. The words she uses to persuade David are sometimes considered a prophecy – the Talmud considers her one of seven female prophets. But others suggest that she’s simply intelligent and able to understand the politics of her time.
Like many an Old Testament name, the baby name Abigail was overlooked for centuries. Unlike many traditional favorites, there’s no saint Abigail or medieval princess by the name.
You might expect the name to gain in use during the Protestant Reformation, like so many Old Testament choices. That’s true … but the story takes some unexpected turns.
The baby name Abigail was revived early.
Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg in 1517. Protestant families embraced the name Abigail during the sixteenth century. Prior to that, it was used mainly by Jewish families. In fact, in Christopher Marlowe’s 1590 play The Jew of Malta, Abigail was the daughter.
Marlowe’s play proved successful, and may have contributed to the name’s greater use.
But then another drama recast how we saw the name.
The Biblical Abigail referred to herself as a handmaid. In 1616, the smash hit Beaumont & Fletcher comedy The Scornful Lady included a loyal maid called Abigail. It seems like the latter was inspired by the former. In any case, Abigail became a generic term to refer to a female servant.
It didn’t end use of the name, though. The baby name Abigail appears throughout early American history. Abigail Williams was one of the young accusers during the seventeenth century Salem Witch Trials. In the early 1700s, Abigail Franks was part of a notable New York colonial family; her letters to her sons survive, detailing life in the city at the time.
But then there’s Abigail Adams.
The wife of second US President John Adams, Abigail is remembered mainly through her correspondence with her husband. The couple married in 1764. Their correspondence revealed her intelligence, and her husband’s respect for her opinion, despite limited formal education. The 1,200 surviving letters also give us a peak into life during the Revolution.
Their son, John Quincy Adams, would become the sixth president.
She’s proved a popular figure across the ages, particularly thanks to her writing on behalf of women’s rights. Laura Linney played Abigail Adams in the 2008 HBO miniseries, and a fictional version of the First Lady appeared in 2015 in the television series Sleepy Hollow, too. Not surprisingly, artist Judy Chicago gave Abigail a seat on the Heritage Floor in her iconic work of women’s history, The Dinner Party.
BY the NUMBERS
All of this makes us think of the baby name Abigail as a traditional name. Classic, even.
But the numbers? They’re not quite there.
Instead of routinely appearing in the US Top 100 with Emma and Grace, Abigail barely registered in the late nineteenth century.
From 1907 to 1938, the baby name Abigail fails to rank in the Top 1000. Only a handful of girls received the name most years until the middle of the twentieth century.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the name really began to climb in use – and even then, it took decades.
GAIL and GAYLE
We tend to think of Gail, Gale, and Gayle as Abigail nicknames.
But in the 1930s, it was Gail that ranked in the US Top 100. Gale and Gayle followed – and eventually, so did Abigail.
It’s worth noting that the baby name Gail might claim separate origins. It can come from the surname Gale, which has multiple meanings. One of them lines up neatly with the Hebrew word for joy.
It was a pop culture favorite in the middle of the twentieth century, with characters in movies like 1950’s Our Very Own and figures like actor Gail Russell and 1970s singer Crystal Gayle – born Brenda Gail Webb.
Chances are that Gail brought the baby name Abigail into greater use – not the other way around.
But back to fictional Abigails for a minute, because Abigail van Buren is one of the most renowned.
Beginning in 1956, Pauline Phillips began dispensing advice under the pen name, in a column known as “Dear Abby.” Pauline’s twin sister authored the similar “Dear Ann Landers” column. They would remain rivals for the rest of their careers.
Since 1987, Pauline’s daughter, Jeanne, has written the column.
While it’s faded from its spot at the top of every newspaper, we still think of Abigail van Buren as a dispenser of advice. A little old-fashioned, maybe. But practical, sensible, and compassionate. And it’s still very much read today.
By 1989, the baby name Abigail had cracked the US Top 100.
To the advice columnist and Abigail Adams, we added fictional First Lady Abigail Barlett on West Wing, actor Abigail Breslin, The Stand’s Mother Abagail, NCIS’s brilliant and quirky Abby Sciuto, and dozens more.
Because even if the baby name Abigail wasn’t really a vintage revival, we perceived it as such.
It tipped into the US Top Ten by the year 2001.
Besides the name’s vintage style, it also fit with another long-standing category: formal names with built-in nicknames. Madeline – in several spellings – was climbing. Gabrielle and Gabriella reduce to Gabby; every Katherine was a Kate; and all those Isabellas could be Issy or Belle. For parents who love the option of a sweet nickname or a more substantial formal choice, Abigail was an obvious choice.
Abigail remained in the US Top Ten through 2017, and as of 2020 still sits at #13. That’s a lot of little Abbys.
But with a strong and sensible vibe, and the approachable nickname Abby, the name’s success seems logical. It’s a sister for Eleanor, an alternative to Margaret or Emily. And while it’s been popular for ages, it still manages to feel timeless and traditional, too.
What do you think of the baby name Abigail?
First published on November 19, 2008, this post was revised substantially and re-published on July 21, 2021.
My friends name is Abbey, and she hates it! Reason being no one can spell it properly and she cant get a nickname out of it. We have tried and come up with abe lincoln and ab’s of steel but understandably they arent very popular. Also, it is a very common name which is unappealing…
I would recommend any parent considering nameing their kid Abbey to name them Abigayle, therefor giving them the option of having a long or short name.
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.
I love abigail, since it’s Abby’s name on NCIS.
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.
Kelly Cozart says
my daughters’ names are abigail (abbie) and margaret (maggie)!!
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?!
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”.
Emmy Jo says
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.
LOL, Lyndsay! And I agree with you Lola. These days Abigail feels maybe a little expected. And yes, Shannon – Gail is stuck in the 50s. (Though I love Gale for a boy. Thank you, Hunger Games.)
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. Add one more syllable, and I was Abby – an uncommon name for someone my age, 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 I like quite a bit. 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.
For the entire decade of the 1970s, there were only about 7,000 girls called Abigail – versus nearly 270,000 Amys. So I meet lots of women with daughters named Abigail, but few other adult Abigails. (Though that first wave is graduating from college right about now, so that’s changing.)
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 – a little bit of a loss. And it takes FOREVER for it to shake out – my daughter’s birth certificate needed to be sent back because they used my birth name instead of my legal name, nearly a decade after my legal name change. So it might be worth considering 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 I do think this name suits me, and overall, I’m happy with it.
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.)
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).
My three-year-old niece’s name is Abigail… she thinks her first name is Abby and her last name is Gail.
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! 🙂