The name was originally a diminutive form of Eleanor; one theory suggest that it is a corruption of a term of endearment, mine El, becoming Nel.
The name was borne by Nell Gwyn (1650-1687), the mistress of Charles II of England. Nell Gwyn is a sort of folk heroin, often glamorized as the embodiment of Restoration England and considered one of Britain’s first female actors.
The name has been used as an independent given name since at least the 19th-century as Nell was at one time the 144th most popular female name in the United States, (1886).
As of 2011, Nell does not appear in the U.S. top 1000 but she is the 394th most popular female name in France, (2010).