Which non-American man do Americans admire most?
Nelson Mandela, first post-apartheid president of South Africa. In last December's Gallup poll of the most admired people, regardless of nationality, Mandela ranked second only to President Barack Obama. Since 1955, when Gallup first asked the question, Mandela's been one of the 10 most admired 20 times.
“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” a biopic starring Idris Elba as Mandela, opens Friday in American theaters.
Nelson is an English surname meaning “son of Neil.” Neil, an Irish Gaelic name meaning “champion,” was adopted by Vikings and brought to England after the Norman conquest in 1066.
Latest figures show Nelson to be the 238th most common surname in England. In the 2000 United States census, though, over 412,000 Americans had Nelson as a last name, ranking 40th.
Part of that's from Scandinavian immigrants Americanizing Nielsen and Nilsson to “Nelson.” For example, the late Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, founder of Earth Day, had a Norwegian-born grandfather. But Nelson was already almost twice as common in the United States in 1851, before many Scandinavians arrived.
English admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) was a brilliant naval strategist who became famous during Britain's wars with Napoleon. Knighted in 1797, he became “Lord Nelson” after the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801.
Nelson was killed during the Battle of Trafalgar, though through his leadership England won that decisive battle over Napoleon's navy. Trafalgar Square in London was created in Nelson's honor. Britons raised scores of monuments to him. At least 250 pubs in England are called “The Lord Nelson.”
Americans admired Lord Nelson much as Nelson Mandela is admired today. The town of Nelson, N.Y., is named for him. Americans also named sons after the admiral. One example was Horatio Nelson Wheeler, a local landowner who Nelson, Neb., is named after.
Turning last names into first names was more popular in America than England. In 1850 only 973 men with Nelson as a first name lived in Britain, while 16,474 were in the United States.
In 1880, Nelson ranked 138th. It's been generally receding since.
In 1926, Nelson dropped below the top 200. Then in 1935, singer Nelson Eddy (1901-1967) became a movie star, singing “Ah Sweet Mystery of Life” in the Oscar-nominated “Naughty Marietta.” Eddy's fame pushed Nelson back into the top 200 between 1936 and 1943.
New York governor Nelson Rockefeller (1908-1979) didn't do much for the name when he ran for president in 1968 under the slogan “Who else but Nelse?” But there was a minor uptick in Nelsons while he served as President Gerald Ford's vice-president from 1974-1977.
Today's most famous Nelsons are television characters. Dysfunctional bully Nelson Muntz has been Bart and Lisa's nemesis on “The Simpsons” since 1990.
Since 2010, corrupt former federal agent Nelson Van Alten (played by Michael Shannon) has been featured on Prohibition-era crime drama “Boardwalk Empire.” The show's based on a history of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson, but Van Alten — perhaps named after Johnson — is fictional.
When Nelson Mandela was born in 1918, he was named Rolihlahla, Xhosa for “troublemaker.” When he started school, his teacher gave him an English name, according to the custom in South Africa at the time. Mandela says he has no idea why “Nelson” was the name his teacher chose.
The last time there was a minor uptick in the American use of Nelson was in 1988, just after Mandela was released from his long imprisonment. This may have as much to do with the twins born on “The Cosby Show” being named Nelson and Winnie after Mandela and his then wife as being a direct homage to Mandela himself, however.
In 2012, Nelson ranked 560th for newborns, its lowest point ever. Perhaps the new film will inspire some parents to admire the name as much as they admire the man.