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.
Melissa is beautiful! I like everything about it. I get it that it might feel dated or boring for many Americans but not to me, I’m Polish, and while I’m well aware of the popularity of Melissa in the US and have seen it on many American women, it still feels nicely exotic to me. It’s not popular at all over here. The default form is Melisa, though Melissa is not very far away from her in last year’s popularity chart. This name appears more often now but I think still might not be familiar for many Poles – one of the naming rules that was only recently abandoned was that you can’t use a common word as a name for your child, and melisa is the plant. – So, while it is a beautiful name, I think that the association with melissa tea is much more present in an average person’s consciousness than that Melissa is an actual name. I would really love to see this name more popular here.
This is my name. So funny to read that today Melissa’s more likely to be pushing the stroller than to be in it. So true! 😉
Melissa is very dated to me, and I can never shake that, though I did enjoy reading its history.
I have a second cousin named Melissa, and her birthday is today [the 19th]! She, and one classmate, were the only Melissas I knew while growing up. As an adult I’ve only formally met one other [she dated another cousin]. Either it wasn’t as popular here, or I’ve just led a sheltered life.
Come to think of it — my sister-in-law, and my husband’s cousin, are the only two Amys I’ve ever met. Hmm…
Panya, there are regional differences in name popularity that might explain some of it. Amy, Melissa and Jennifer appear in the Top Ten of pretty much every state throughout the 1970s – I think – but you’ll find that they’re lower in some regions. Heidi did well in Utah that year; Monica fared well in New Mexico and Crystal in West Virginia. I’m sure there are logical explanations for why a name pops in a region or state, but it is more difficult to research … but I’d guess that you might have lived some place where there were fewer Melissas and Amys.
Me? I didn’t know a Melissa until I was in my 20s, and even now, I only know one.
Charlotte Vera says
Wow. I’ve known Melissa’s my whole life. I had two Indian friends growing up (in India) who were named Melissa, and I also know a Philippino Melissa, and lots of American and Canadian Melissa’s.
Charlotte Vera says
I was just informed that I have a new fourth cousin once removed. The reason I bring it up? Her name is Miette Elle Sparrow Scott.
How interesting! The French name Mariette always sticks in my head, after Ron Hanson’s novel about the nun. I guess Miette could be considered a contracted form of Mariette …
Charlotte Vera says
To me, Miette makes me think of the Miette Hot Springs my family likes to visit!
Charlotte Vera says
I totally agree with what the previous posters have said: the name was simply too prevalent among my friends growing up for me to ever consider it. Actually, most of the Melissa’s I knew were a few years older than I, which in a way makes it an even less likely choice. I too would be somewhat surprised to hear this name on an infant — I was shocked a few months ago when a friend named her daughter Amy! Amy’s, Melissa’s, Jennifer’s, and Heather’s are the people who babysat me or went to school with me, they’re not my friends’ children!
British American says
I was surprised to find that my 4 year old daughter has a classmate named Heather.
Another friend was seriously considering Jennifer for her daughter (who just turned 1). I much prefer the name she decided on – Imogen.
I agree with photoquilty – pretty enough, but I know several from my generation and it is dated. But I also agree that she’ll be back… in another 30-40 years – on our granddaughters maybe. I imagine the other Mel- names will also follow suit – Melanie and even Melinda remind me of the same decade.
JNE, I have an Aunt Melinda. (She’s actually not that much older than me – 41, maybe?) I tend to hear that one as particularly dated. But I do hear parents still considering Melanie, which to me is the most dated of the Mel- names. (Or should that be Melody? To me, Melody is all Josie & the Pussycats.) In any case, Melanie remains in the US Top 100, and I’m surprised every time I see her there.
It’s a pretty name, but also quite dated. I know as many Melissas as I know Heathers – 4 each (!), all around the same age as me. It wouldn’t evencross my mind to put this one on a list, but I wouldn’t roll my eyes at hearing it, either. I probably would be a bit shocked to hear of a mother naming her child Melissa in 2010. It just screams 30-40 year old woman!
Exactly – if it hadn’t been popular in the 70s, it would be fine today. Except it was. And so it doesn’t feel very inspired.