He’s quintessentially English, surprisingly versatile and wouldn’t exist save for a medieval typo.
Thanks to JNE for suggesting our Name of the Day: Nigel.
We’ve all played whisper down the alley. Rarely does the final person hear precisely what the first person uttered. But sometimes the mangling is especially impressive. Nigel is one of those cases.
Niall Noígíallach is listed as High King of Ireland in the late fourth century. While he might be more legend than historical figure, Niall inspired parents to keep the name in use for generations.
He also became a successful export, adopted by the Scandinavians (Njall), the French (Neil, Neel, Nel) and eventually the English, too. That’s where things get interesting. Apparently, when casting about for a Latinization of Neil, medieval writers linked Neil to the Latin niger – black – and came up with Nigellus.
But that’s not the name’s origin at all. It’s possible that Niall came from niadh – Gaelic for champion – or néall, cloud. Nigel is now listed with all three meanings – champion, cloud and dark – and it’s not clear that any are truly accurate.
In England, Nigellus lost his “us” and became Nigel sometime in the 1100s. A handful of English aristocrats wore the name, including Nigel of Ely, Lord High Treasurer to Henry I. Nigel de Longchamps was a twelfth century English poet.
The name faded, but was revived after Sir Walter Scott published his novel, The Fortunes of Nigel, in 1822.
By the 1960s and 70s, plenty of British parents were calling their boys Nigel, and so we have a list of notable bearers from the 20th century, including:
- Actors Nigel Stock (known for playing Dr. Watson); Nigel Pivaro (of BBC’s Coronation Street); Nigel Planer (best known for BBC’s The Young Ones); Nigel Havers (from the movie Chariots of Fire); and Nigel Bruce (who also played Dr. Watson);
- Nigel Marven, who went from producing wildlife documentaries to presenting them. You might remember him as the host of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week for several years;
- Nigel Barker, fashion photographer and judge on America’s Next Top Model.
Many athletes and politicians have worn the name, too, and there are a few fictional Nigels of note. Our favorite is Nigel Tufnel, played by Christopher Guest in 1984’s This is Spinal Tap.
Today Neil and Nigel rank about the same in the US. Neil came in at #740; Nigel was just one spot behind at #741. Back in 1994, Nigel reached as high as #478.
It sounds so very English that we’re not sure how it would wear on an American boy. Except that there clearly have been plenty of American Nigels – and with the right surname, this could be a lovely way to commemorate your English roots and be confident that your son won’t share his name.