She was among the most popular names given to girls in the 1970s. Is she a classic destined for revival, or will she fade into obscurity?
Thanks to Kelly for suggesting Melissa as Name of the Day.
A song helped propel her to the heights of popularity in the 1970s. The Allman Brothers recorded “Melissa” for 1972’s Eat a Peach. It’s a Southern rock staple and part of the reason Melissa peaked at #2 from 1977 through 1979.
Melissa started her ascent in the 1940s and entered the Top 100 in 1961. She’d made it into the Top Ten in 1967, a few years before the album’s release.
In fact, Gregg Allman had written the song, but couldn’t land on a name – until he heard a mother calling after her toddler in a grocery store. (Apparently, Allman was so psyched to rush home and finish his lyrics that he rushed out without finishing his shopping.)
The 1970s were also the heyday of soft rock chanteuse Melissa Manchester. You’ll still hear her 1979 Grammy-nominated hit “Don’t Cry Out Loud” on the radio today.
Parents and children alike tuned into television’s family friendly classic Little House on the Prairie. The Ingalls girls were named Laura and Mary, but they were played by child actors Melissa Gilbert and Melissa Sue Anderson.
Little wonder that by the end of the 1970s, Melissa had been bestowed on more than 250,000 newborn baby girls – behind only Jennifer and Amy.
Today she’s more likely to be pushing the stroller than riding in one, but Melissa still came in at #134 in 2008.
And why not? She’s no nouveau invention. The Greeks used melissa to refer to honeybees, borrowing from the Hittite melit – honey. (You’ll sometimes find Melitta listed as a variant, but today Melitta brings to mind coffee.)
The first Melissa was a nymph, one who sheltered the young god Zeus from and fed him milk and – what else? – honey.
If women were called Melissa over the years they’re missing from the historical record. Noble families sometimes used Melisende during the Middle Ages, but she’s related to Millicent.
Instead, Melissa made her literary debut as a helpful sorceress in Ludovico Ariosoto’s Orlando Furioso. The epic poem picks up on an earlier story about Orlando penned by Matteo Boiardo. Boiardo wrote at the end of the fifteenth century; Ariosto, at the beginning of the sixteenth.
The poems tell of love and intrigue, set sometime during the reign of Charlemagne but with a healthy dose of fantasy. Characters visit Japan and the moon. It was Ariosto, not JK Rowling, who first helped a hero escape on the back of a flying hippogriff.
Besides the mythological and literary references, there’s also a genus of perennial flowering herbs called Melissa. Found throughout Europe and Asia, they probably got their name because their white or yellow flowers attracted honeybees.
All of this puts Melissa in a certain category of names, much like Amanda and Jessica. Their literary roots ensure that while they made fade from the heights of popularity, they have earned their status as 20th century staples.
Melissa is feminine and has history aplenty. Today’s parents might find her a bit too familiar, but just like Emma, Grace and Ella, she’ll be back.