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From FHM issue 146

What's in a name: Nelson

Most family historians, and regular readers of this feature, know that surnames became considered necessary when the government introduced personal taxation which, in England, was known as Poll Tax. British surnames mostly evolved thus, between 1250 and 1450, and through the centuries have developed – modern-day spellings often bear little resemblance to the original names. This month, we’ve researched the name Nelson, which, as one might guess, was first adopted through the straightforward patronymic method: son of Neil.

However, as with most names, things aren’t quite so simple. Name etymologists clash over whether Nelson is essentially an Irish or Anglo-Scandinavian name. If Nelson came from the Gaelic name Neal, it originated as a patronymic name in medieval times from the names: Nell, Niall or Neal.

Others contest that Scandinavians adopted the Gaelic name Niall in the form Njal or Nyall, and it was Norse settlers who introduced the name to northern England and East Anglia, rather than it being taken directly from Gaelic. It also took the form ‘Ni(h)el’, often Latinised as ‘Nigellus’ through an incorrect association with ‘Niger’, meaning black or dark. Records show the first reference to Nelson in the form of one Willelmus filius (son of) Nigelli in The Domesday Book of 1086 for Berkshire and a Willelmus filius Nele in the 1304 Subsidiary Rolls of Yorkshire.

In terms of the most popular counties for Nelsons in 2007, South Lanarkshire holds the top place: Nelson is the 21st most prevalent surname. This is followed by West Lothian, County Down and Aberdeen City. While the maps (below) unfortunately omit Ireland and Northern Ireland, making it difficult to compare Irish Nelsons, there was, and still is, clearly a high presence of Nelsons around the English/Scottish border. It appears that, in the last 100 years, many Nelsons have moved to northern Scotland. Norfolk remains a county with an oddly high concentration of Nelsons. Overall, in Great Britain an estimated 24,300 people share the surname Nelson, making it the 387th most common name.

Undoubtedly, the most famous bearer of the name is Viscount Horatio Nelson (1758–1805), British naval commander during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. Horatio was born in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, to a humble family, and joined the Royal Navy in 1770. Having won four notable naval battles, defeated French and Spanish fleets and gained victory against Napoleon, Nelson died in battle and was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral. He remains one of Britain’s most loved heroes, with Nelson’s column, erected in 1843 and standing 185 feet high in the centre of Trafalgar Square, his memorial.

Nelson was been an incredibly popular first name for British boys in both the 19th and 20th centuries, no doubt due to Horatio’s influence. Of course, the best known holder of the first name Nelson is Mandela, the first president of South Africa to be elected in fully representative democratic elections. As an anti-apartheid activist, Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison, but since his release he has one over 100 awards for his work promoting equality and democracy, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

Other Nelson’s include Willie Nelson (born 1933), singer and American idol, who is famed for his contribution to the country music scene as well as his environmental work. With a similar name but a very different vocation, Bill Nelson (born 1942) is currently the senior US Senator from Florida and flew, as an astronaut, in the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1988. Legendary American golfer Byron Nelson (1912–2006) won five major tournaments during the 1930s and 1040s. Nelson is also the little-known surname of diminutive pop icon Prince, who was born Prince Rogers Nelson in 1958 and once renounced names altogether, becoming just a symbol in 1993.

As well as being the name of numerous famous people, the word Nelson is used in conjunction with some obscure, interesting activities. It is used in cricket as a slang, superstitious term which is applied to team or individual scores of 111, 222 etc, and is thought to refer to Lord Nelson’s lost eye and arm. It is thought that bad things happen on that score and as a result, umpire David Shepherd made popular the practice of raising a leg from the ground ‘on a Nelson’ in an effort to avoid ill fate, and in doing so provoking crowds to cheer in support.

Also in sport, the ‘nelson’ is used in wrestling to refer to a grappling hold where one or both arms are used to encircle the opponent’s arm under the armpit and are then secured at the opponent’s neck. This term dates back to the early 19th century; when the Admiral Nelson used strategies based on surrounding the enemy to win the Battle of the Nile and the Battle of Trafalgar.

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