How Kim and Val changed sex by crossing the Atlantic

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TODAY, an article that doesn't mention the Cabinet reshuffle. Or the World Cup. Or anything, really.

In all the brouhaha surrounding the tragic kidnapping and joyful return of baby Abbie Humphries, several questions remain unanswered, and one in particular worries me a lot. I don't mean any of the legal, criminal or psychological questions, which I can safely leave to others; I mean a question of orthography which has been tickling at my mind for a long time and which it would be nice to settle: what is the right way to spell Abbie?

I'm perfectly serious about this. The older I get, the more females I come to know called Abigail. The more females I know called Abigail, the more I know who want to shorten their name. But to what?

In my young days it was easier. They shortened their name to Gail. A nice name, and with no spelling variations. But now it is shortened to Abbie. Or Abi. Or . . .

Abi seems to be the most popular solution. At least, it is the most popular among the Abigails of my acquaintance. I just wish it didn't look wrong to me. It looks vaguely Arabic, like a variant of Abu. But that's the way they want to spell it, so that's fine by me. At least when you spell it Abi, you are stressing that it is an abbreviated form of Abigail, and not an independent name. If you wanted to call someone Abi right from the beginning, you would call them Abbie. Which I imagine is what happened to baby Abbie.

You can see this sort of process at work in other names. The original name, if it is something that can be shortened, such as Jessica, Hilary, Samuel or Benjamin, is shortened to Jess, Hil, Sam and Ben. Then it is familiarised, and slightly lengthened, to Jessie or Hilly or Sammy or Benny. Then these names become names in their own right. The result is that when you meet someone called Jamie or Emmy, you are not sure whether that is their real name or merely a pet version of something else.

(Come to think of it, I used to know a girl called Emmy, but she spelt it Emi to stress that it was short for Emilia. The only snag was that she ran the risk of being confused with the large record company, EMI. But she wasn't as badly off as anyone called Emmy or Tony or Oscar or Grammy, who sound like a showbiz award from the day of their birth . . . I also have a Scottish cousin called Amelia who from the earliest days has been abbreviated to Meals, which is fine except that nobody has ever worked out how to spell it.)

There is a fine American jazz singer called Abbey Lincoln, which is another way of spelling Abbie or Abi altogether. However, according to Grove's Dictionary of Jazz, Abbey Lincoln has been none too sure about her name herself in days gone by. She started out life as Gaby Wooldridge, and sang under that name, as well as under Anna Marie and Gaby Lee, before finally settling on Abbey at the age of 26, perhaps drawn in by the gravitational pull of Abraham Lincoln, and perhaps also tired of explaining to people just what Gaby came from and how that should be spelt.

The only other Lincoln listed in Grove's is another Abraham Lincoln, better known to jazz fans as trombonist Abe Lincoln, and here we come across another confusing factor, which is that any shortened version of Abigail is going to look like (but not sound like) a shortened version of Abraham. In America, Abie can only be short for Abraham. Do you remember a play called Abie's Irish Rose? Well, no, I don't either, but I do remember S J Perelman referring to it so often that I persuaded myself I had seen it, too, and I am willing to bet the Abie in the title was a man and he was called Abraham.

This change of sex across the Atlantic is not uncommon. Kim tends to be a girl there, a boy here. Val tends to be a girl here, a boy there. You might think Sal could only be short for Sally, but in New York you find that all people called Sal are men because it is short for Salvatore, hence, probably, Sal Mineo. (Though they do know about the girl's name, because there was a popular American song 60 years ago called 'My Gal Sal', written by Paul Dresser, the brother of Theodore Dreiser, and why Paul changed his surname by only one letter I have no idea, although Stephane Grappelli did exactly the same . . . .)