Transferred use of the surname, which originated in the Middle Ages as either a patronymic from Neil or a metronymic from Nell. Use as a given name probably began as a tribute to the British admiral Lord Nelson (1758–1805), the victor of the Battle of Trafalgar; see also Horatio. It is, however, now much more common in the United States than in Britain, its popularity there in the 1930s and 40s no doubt having been influenced by the American film actor and singer Nelson Eddy (1901–67). Nowadays the name is universally associated with the South African statesman Nelson Mandela (b. 1918).
German and Swiss German: 1. apparently an occupational name for a turnip grower, from an agent derivative of Middle High German rabe ‘turnip’. 2. (also Räber): from a Germanic personal name, Radobert, a compound of rād, rāt ‘advice’, ‘counsel’ + berht ‘bright’, ‘famous’. 3. variant of Reber.