by Gail Roberts
Pumba: And, oh, the shame
Timon: He was ashamed
Pumba: Thought-a changin’ my name
Timon: Oh, what’s in a name?
-The Lion King (1994)
According to the U.S. Social Security database, the name “Abigail” as a female first name has been in the top 1000 names used every single year since 1901. It’s been consistently in the top 10 and top 20 since 1998. In fact, 0.8% of female babies born in 2005 were named Abigail.
But, my very religious history buff parents selected this name for me after Abigail from the Old Testament and Abigail Adams from early American history. My fate was sealed as one who “considers the ladies” (as Abigail Adams urged her husband in a letter) and one who can resolve conflicts. Little did they know, I would consider the ladies a little more than they were comfortable with. And maybe not really consider myself 100% a lady.
Abigail pairs well with my brother’s name, Benjamin. Abigail and Benjamin, perfectly abcedarian with our birth order. And they just sound nice: both three syllables with identical rises and falls when spoken. Kept us equal but also in our correct order: 2.8 years apart. In fact, everything was as equal as it could be with both of us. And we only ever were our full names growing up if we were in trouble; otherwise, we were just Abby and Benji (or Ben, as he would deem more fitting later on.) We skipped grades at the same time (5th for me and 2nd for him.) We were so equal that both of us got presents on each other’s birthdays. As to not make me feel bad on his October 29th, I got a gift (usually a doll or stuffed animal). And to keep him from throwing a fit on my January 6th, he also received a present (usually a building set). I’m not sure how long this tradition went on or how long we always got dolls for the girl and building toys for the boy.
“I’m a fake —– and it’s never been clearer
Can’t see myself when I look in the mirror
Can’t see myself when I look in the mirror”
– J. Cole (2018)
Abby is the most common nickname of Abigail. No unnecessary I’s or, Heaven forbid, E’s. Abby as its own name continues to make the top 1000 female American names, as it has since 1951.
I’ve been Abby as long as I can remember. Abby Roberts: like Clark Kent or Peter Parker, or other superhero alter-egos with iconic names. Big, huge bubbled B’s bouncing throughout my name. Easily babble-able and all standardly spelled. And even though highly standard, still quite easy to piss me off with variations or wrong interpretations.
My childhood piano teacher said my name like Abi-GELL or called me Beautiful Abby.
Both equally caused an uncomfortable clench in my spine every time she said them.
Or in 4th grade, Greg Mims knew I would flinch at every unholy ABBY-gail. The emphasis is not on Abby, it’s on Gail! It sounds too premature when it’s ABBY-gail, like my name falls short at its final syllable, just like I fell short when trying to keep up with him and the other boys in kickball.
Or even in 6th grade, during the poetry unit. We had gotten to limericks (the Irish little saucy poem form with a little bit of syllable- number wiggle room but had a pretty strict rhyme form of AABBA). I had a crush on a boy named Garrett that was not going well, so I elected to mock him academically by reading a limerick about his gigantic head in class.
There once was a boy named Garrett,
Whose head was NOT shaped like a carrot.
It was so very large, Almost like a barge.
And his voice was similar to a ferret’s.
Mrs. Gardiner stifled a laugh, so she wouldn’t come off as a supporter of bullying.
So, he came up with a response in our little 10-year-old classroom’s version of a rap battle that I don’t think I’ll ever forget:
There once was a girl named Abby,
Whose writing was pretty shabby.
Can’t ride a bike or Get me to like her.
I think she’s just crabby.
See? Nothing good rhymes with Abby. And no good comes from pursuing boys.
“Four letter word just to get me along . . .
Listen to me, oh no I never say anything at all
But with nothing to consider, they forget my name”
– The Ting Tings (2008)
Gail has not been in the top 1000 male baby names since 1962 or the top 1000 female baby names since 1985. Its zenith was 1951 as the 36th most popular female baby name.
Definitely not any of this top 10 ranking crap that comes with being Abigail.
And, remember, Abby started being popular as Gail began its decline in 1951.
Gail started off as a purely practical choice. I went on a study abroad program to Italy,
Greece, and Denmark over the summer. The participants nearly all had A names: Allie, Aubretia, Aubrey, Ann, and another Abby. Instead of trying some Abby 1 and Abby 2 shenanigans, I joked that I should go by Gail. The name of your wine-o aunt or a middle-aged bank teller. Or the Liam Hemsworth tragic hottie from The Hunger Games.
According to a disputed story, the Greek mathematician Archimedes shouted “Eureka!” as he figured out volume displacement while sliding his naked body in and out of a bathtub and observing how the water changed. Alternately, times like this have been called “Aha!” or Lightbulb moments. Either way, saying Gail cracked some kind of identity Enigma code deeply embedded in my brain.
How had I been so dumb before? Gail is part of my legal first name, so I wouldn’t have to change it. Gale is Dorothy’s last name in The Wizard of Oz (1939), the movie that has been closest to my heart since I called it Wizzardubozzz while rewinding its VHS tape over and over again up until I started kindergarten. And Gail has a little embedded way of saying “gay.”
Gay-L. I also love whales and quails.
Like most great ideas, I let it stew for quite a while in my brain. After months of running mental pro/con lists, I made it official on social media. I decided to not correct people who already knew me as Abby and to consistently introduce myself as Gail. When asked why, I have been replying that it is a more gender-neutral name. After that, I can usually see the cogs turning in their heads when they hear this term. And they can decide to ask me more questions after that or let it be the ambiguity that it is. It turns out not everyone needs a perfectly explained label of gender and sexual identity.
Am I even that committed to this change? I still call everyone I know who is trans “real trans people,” undermining my place under the umbrella pretty harshly. I got my sweet 12-piece nugget meal from Chick-Fil-A the other day and, when asked what name the order should be put under, I replied “Abby” instantly. It’s a reflex even for me. But, from a cognitive neuropsychology standpoint, hearing our names makes our brains light up in a special way. It might take a little while to recognize “Gail” as me in that split-second way.
On all my grad school paperwork going forward, I have been marking my preferred name as Gail, but it’s much easier typed than spoken.
As my dad replied after I announced this change, “The search for the Holy Gail is over!”
But I know I’m still searching for Gail, and I’m not sure if I’m Gail enough yet.