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.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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  1. File also under cool rock song names: We’re only making plans for Nigel… we only want what’s best for him…” -XTC

  2. I agree with Kate – Nigel definitely has a comedic attachment, maybe that’s part of the appeal? I knew Nigels in England, but not tons of them and for me, the decade match to the name isn’t strong (although, thinking about it, it fits).

    Nigella is simply buttoned-up and darkly sexy at the same time (what can I say, Nigella Lawson definitely embodies some of the sexy in the name)… and it has the uber-popular ella ending – what a great surprise to throw in that Nige beginning and shake things up!

  3. It’s so interesting to hear the English versus American opinions of this one. I think you’ve nailed it, Shannon – Nigel must be like Gary or Scott. Fine on a grown man, but strange on a newborn. Probably the kind of name that causes expectant parents to bicker about passing down a family name. 🙂

    Lola, thanks for the wealth of animated Nigels! I thought of Thornberry but deleted him to cut the article, but HOW could I forget Eddie Izzard’s koala bear from The Wild?! Alexei went through a kick where we watched the movie constantly and sang “I’m Havin’ a Really Nice Day, Really Nice Day, Really Nice Day” nonstop. And the pelican was great, too.

    And Kate, while I’m indifferent to Nigel – don’t hate, don’t love it – I’ll admit that I adore the name Nigella. And the chef, too – we’ve got a bunch of her cookbooks on hand.

  4. I think you’re right Shannon, it’s dated to a specific period and until we have a certain amount of distance from that period that’s all anyone will associate the name with.

  5. I like it. It sounds like he could be a sibling to Hugo or Calvin, I think. He’s kind of fun and sharp sounding.

  6. Maybe hearing the name Nigel in England is like hearing… I don’t know, let’s say Gary or Jerry or Scott, in the US. Dated to a certain period. I could see someone using it in the US, though.

  7. Oh dear, Nigel is one of those names I can’t see coming back for quite a while! Being English I know quite a few Nigel’s all around the 40-50yrs mark. It’s one of those names like Roger for example which has an element of comedy attached to it these days. Another famous Nigel was of course Nigel Lawson, Chancellor of the Exchequer when Margaret Thatcher was PM and who named his now famous daughter Nigella…

  8. There are pop culture Nigel’s too! Nigel Thornberry, voiced by my favorite sometimes cross-dressing guy, Tim Curry. There’s also Nigel the pelican, from “Finding Nemo” and Nigel the koala from “The Wild (voiced by another of my favorite cross dressing guys, Eddie Izzard). There’s also a tertiary character in HP named Nigel. Played by William Melling.

    I like Nigel, he feels crisp and somewhat sharp. I know he’s dated in the UK but I think he works here in the States. Unfortunately my other half says “poofta” and that’s about it for Nigel’s chances in my household. I think he’d be a perfect follow up to Leo & Simon too, Oh well. I can hope someone else uses Nigel; I’d love to meet some!