Etymology & Historical Origin of the Baby Name Nigel
Nigel is an English masculine name which developed from “Nigellus”, a Medieval Latin form of Neil. Neil is actually an anglicized form of a long-enduring Gaelic name Níall (pronounced “neel”) used since the Middle Ages in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. Its root meaning is up for debate, but most etymologists believe it comes from a Gaelic words meaning one of three things: “champion”, “cloud” or “passionate, vehement”. All agree, however, that the usage of Niall/Neil started with a legendary late 4th/early 5th century High King of Ireland known as Níall Noígíallach (or Niall of the Nine Hostages) whose descendents from his Uí Néill dynasty would go onto rule Ireland for another 600 years. In Niall’s time, there were four kingdoms in Ireland - Ulster, Munster, Leinster & Connacht – and the most powerful king of the four enjoyed more central authority over the others (known as the High King of Tara). Níall was born one of five princely sons of Eochaid Mugmedón who held the distinction of being the High King of Tara. According to legend, the five sons were given a test to find water in order to determine which would inherit the throne. One by one, each brother came to a well of water guarded by a hideous old hag. They could only drink from the well if they agreed to kiss the repugnant woman (all refused). Only Níall passed the test when he agreed to the old lady’s request for a kiss. Not only was Níall recognized as the rightful heir, but the ugly hag transformed into the most beautiful woman in all of Ireland. Bonus points! After inheriting his father’s kingdom, Niall went about consolidating his power throughout the northern region of Ireland and dominating his enemies. He assisted the Scots and Picts in the Gaelic Dál Riata settlement (western coast of Scotland) against the pestering Romans, subduing the opposition by taking royal hostages (hence the Nine Hostages). The most famous hostage taken by Níall during one of his raids was a young Roman citizen who would later be called St. Patrick. Níall of the Nine Hostages was indeed a legendary “champion” and clearly a “passionate, vehement” Irish warrior of his day. The name Níall eventually morphed into Neil and Neal, but it is also the root origin of Nigel and Nelson. Nigel represents the Latinized form of Neil, although it is sometimes associated with the Latin word “niger” meaning “black”. It wasn’t until more modern times that Nigel found a wider audience in Great Britain, mostly due to Sir Walter Scott’s 1822 novel “The Fortunes of Nigel” (see literary references below).