Nell Gwyn.
Nell Gwyn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She’s an affectionate short form with a long history of use.

Thanks to Sarah for suggesting Nell as our Baby Name of the Day.

Nan and Nell both acquired their N in same fashion.  Once upon a time, it was common to refer to a loved as my or mine – or maybe mon, in French and Norman English.  Nan was a contraction of “my Ann.”  Nell could have come from Eleanor, Ellen, or maybe Helen – or any name that started with the el sound.

The first famous Nell made her name as an actress in Restoration England, and became the mistress of King Charles II.

Born in humble circumstances, she became a leading ladies in comedies, playing roles like Florimel in John Dryden’s The Maiden Queen.  This was no small feat.  Theater was new, and Nell Gwyn was likely illiterate, making learning her lines a challenge.  As her star rose, she attracted the eye of many a suitor.

The king wasn’t her first aristocratic lover; she wasn’t his first – or last – mistress.  Still, it makes for something of a Cinderella story.  It is often said that she started out selling oranges in the back of the theater, became one of the most admired actresses of her day, and ended as the mistress of the king, and mother of his children.

Unlike many royal mistresses, her reputation is mostly positive.  Samuel Pepys called her “pretty, witty Nell.” Her story has been retold many times, in an 1884 operetta, a 1911 film – the first of more than a dozen, and books galore.

Her given name was probably Eleanor, though little is known of her early life.  Other famous Nells include:

  • Charles Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop gave us the virtuous Nell Trent.
  • Canadian actress Nell Shipman was an early Canadian silent film star, born Helen.
  • Another silent film star was born Maybelle, and known as Mabel or Nell Taliaferro.
  • It was the name of the damsel in distress, tied to the train tracks and ready for rescuing by Dudley Do-Right in the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.
  • It’s the birth name of Tony Award winning actress Nell Carter.
  • Actress Nell Campbell – born Laura Elizabeth – went on to establish a legendary New York City nightclub called Nell’s.
  • The 1994 film Nell starred Jodie Foster as a young woman raised without any contact with the outside world.
  • Songstress Nelly Furtado was named after gold medal winning gymnast Nellie Kim.
  • Of course there’s Nellie Olesen, of Little House on the Prairie fame.
  • I’m intrigued by the novel The Diamond Age, if only because one of the main characters is Nell, short for Nellodee.

It is sometimes a surname, too, in which case it probably has different origins, related to Cornelius or maybe Neil.

The question is does Nell stand alone, or does she have to be short for somethingTim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter gave the name to their daughter.  And short names for girls, from Mae to Sloane are very much in favor.  My inclination would be to put Helena or Penelope or maybe even Antonella on a child’s birth certificate, but I think she could stand on her own, too.

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. My younger daughter is Ellen, and she goes almost exclusively by Nell. We used Nell as a family nickname for her when she was little, but once she started school she chose to use Nell on a regular basis. She’s almost 10 years old now, and people frequently remark on what a sweet name Nell is, or how they don’t hear it on kids very often…and we get the occasional, “My grandma’s name is Nell!” I’m sometimes a little sad that her given name, Ellen, doesn’t get used much any more; but I’m the one who started calling her Nell as a baby, so I only have myself to blame. She does like her given name just fine and has no problem answering to it when it is used; but she definitely seems to feel more like a Nell than an Ellen at this point in her life.