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This month marks 37 years since the soap opera Number 96 left Australian television. It was wildly popular in the 1970s, and one of the country’s most controversial TV shows, featuring nudity and sex scenes, and covering topics such as racism, drug use, rape, adultery, and homosexuality. It was the world’s first TV show to depict a long-term gay male relationship as normal and a “non-issue”.

All the cast of Number 96 became household names, and one of its biggest drawcards was actress Abigail Rogan, who was originally from England, and always known by just her first name. Sultry, blonde, and curvaceous, she was Australia’s #1 sex symbol of the 1970s. She left the show in 1973, and although her acting career lasted another twenty years, she was never again the big star that Number 96 made her.

Having recently covered the classic children’s novel Playing Beatie Bow in the Girls Name from Australian Children’s Literature list, you might remember the main character was named Lynette, but chose a new name for herself. Because her grandmother says she looks like “a little witch”, she asks her mother to suggest “an old witch name” for her, and eventually her mum says Abigail, which is accepted. Her mother reacts with horror, saying Abigail is “so plain, so knobbly, so … so awful”.

Playing Beatie Bow was published in 1980, and the story takes place in 1973, so it seems strange Abigail is seen as a plain, knobbly, awful name suitable for an old witch. Presumably the “witch” comment is because of Abigail Williams in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, but the actress Abigail, in the top-rating TV show of the day, had given it a sex kitten image by 1973. Even today, I sometimes hear older people say that Abigail is “too sexy” a name for a little girl.

In the Old Testament, Abigail was the beautiful wife of Nabal, a wealthy but surly man who owned land and livestock around the town of Carmel in Judea. At the time, David, who was destined to be king, was living in the wilderness with a band of men. They had all been outlawed by King Saul, and provided protection to the local shepherds.

During the festivities surrounding the sheep shearing season, David sent a small group of men to Nabal to remind him that his profits from the wool trade were so great partly because of the protection they had been giving his shepherds, along with many fine compliments as to Nabal’s nobility and high lineage, and asking for provisions. Nabal didn’t feel like ponying up the protection food to the Outlaw Mafia, and sent back an extremely rude reply.

Uh oh. Nobody insults Don David, the Sheep Father! Seeing things were going to get sticky, one of David’s men privately saw Nabal’s wife Abigail, telling her of the situation, and explaining what a great job they’d been doing protecting the shepherds (for food out of the kindness of their hearts ). Being not only beautiful, but also intelligent, Abigail saw what a stupendous goof Nabal had made.

While David was on the march with 400 armed men, ready to give Nabal what for, Abigail went to meet him with a retinue of servants laden with provisions. She pleaded with David to accept the gifts she had brought with her, asking that there be no bloodshed, offering to take the blame for Nabal’s actions on herself, and telling David that God would make his dynasty long-lasting, and that David was both sinless, and divinely protected.

Because of her intervention, David realised he was about to commit a terrible deed, and sent Abigail home with many blessings for her advice. Abigail did not tell Nabal what she had done until the following day, as Nabal had been carousing a little too heavily at the sheep-shearing festival to be able to listen. When she did tell him the news, the shock (or the carousing) gave him a heart attack or a stroke, and he died ten days later.

When David heard about Nabal’s death, he realised that God had struck him dead in punishment, and asked Abigail to marry him. She replied by bowing to him with her face on the floor and saying, “Let your handmaid be a servant to wash the feet of the servants of my lord”. Let’s hope he didn’t take that literally; I feel a simple “Yes please that will be lovely” would have sufficed. Because she called herself a handmaid, abigail became a common term for a waiting woman, in use from around the 17th century to the early 20th century.

The Bible praises Abigail for her beauty and brains, and she is seen as a prophet because she recognised David as a future king. She was certainly very brave in confronting a vengeful man leading his own personal army, and a skilled diplomat who had a way with words (a necessary knack for the wife of a grouch like Nabal). Abigail’s name also has a beautiful meaning: it’s from the Hebrew avi (“father”), and gil (“joy”), and can be translated as “father’s joy”.

Abigail first joined the Australian charts in the 1960s, debuting at #652. It rose in the 1970s (a boost from the actress?), then fell to #686 in the 1980s, its lowest point. It began rising steeply in the 1990s, and joined the Top 100 in 2001 at #88. By 2007 it was in the Top 50 at #48, and peaked in 2010 at #24. Currently it is #28 nationally, #28 in New South Wales, #27 in Victoria, #24 in Queensland, #27 in Western Australia, #74 in Tasmania, and #23 in the Australian Capital Territory.

Gail, a short form of Abigail, was on the charts from the 1930s to the 1980s, peaking in the 1950s at #26. However, it is the Ab- shortenings which have been successful more recently, as Abby, Abbie, and Abbey all began charting in the 1980s. Abbey reached highest, rising steeply to peak in the early 2000s at #39, while Abby peaked at the same time at the more modest #75 (but Abby is now the more popular). Abbie peaked at #144 in 2009, and if all spellings were added together, Abigail short forms would be in the Top 50, so a lot more popular than they might otherwise seem.

A while back, I picked Abigail as having the potential to eventually reach #1 – with the data I now have at hand, I can see that probably isn’t going to happen, as it has already peaked. Just to confuse things though, Abigail was one of the fastest-rising names at Baby Center Australia last year, so if you’re in that demographic, you may indeed feel there are more baby Abigails around lately.

But isn’t it interesting that Abigail is popular at all? So many of the popular girls names now are soft and fluid, and yet Abigail is quite strong-sounding, perhaps even harsh to some ears, while Abigail is few people’s chosen Bible heroine.

Strangely enough, in some ways Roxanne, which was covered last week and doesn’t chart at all, seems more like the currently fashionable girl’s names than Abigail! Although Abigail is a beautiful and sophisticated choice, I suspect it’s mostly because of Abigail’s cute short forms that it’s managed to become such a favourite.

Abigail received an excellent approval rating of 75%, making it one of the highest-rated names of 2014. People saw the name Abigail as beautiful or pretty (24%), strong and wholesome (18%), and intelligent and professional (17%). However, 8% of people thought it was harsh and ugly. Nobody thought the name Abigail was “too sexy”.

(Picture shows cover of Abigail’s 1973 best-selling “scandalous” autobiography, Call Me Abigail; copies can now sell for hundreds of dollars to collectors)