Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. In his June 6th column, he looks at the history of the name Melanie.
The U.S. Olympic Swim Trials are taking place in Omaha this month. Twenty-nine-year-old Melanie Margalis, holder of the U.S. record in the 400-meter individual medley, is expected to win that event here. At the 2016 Olympics, she won gold as part of the U.S. women’s 4×200-meter freestyle relay.
Mélanie is the French form of Melania, a Latin name derived from Greek “melaina,” meaning “black.” Melania the Elder (c. 350-417) and granddaughter Melania the Younger (c. 383-439) were fabulously wealthy Roman women who used their fortune to build convents and give relief to the poor. St. Jerome, angry at the elder Melania for supporting his theological rival Origen, called her “black in name and black in nature.” That didn’t stop both Melanias being revered as saints.
Though the Normans brought the name Melanie with them to England in 1066, it was rare and soon died out. In the 1850 United States census, 144 of the 189 Melanies were born in French-settled Louisiana, France, or Belgium.
Melanie’s rare American use before 1940 was usually in a Roman Catholic context. For example, when Martha Anne Holliday (1850-1939) joined the Sisters of Mercy in Atlanta in 1883, she was renamed “Mary Melania,” and called “Sister Melanie.”
Sister Melanie’s second cousin, Atlanta journalist Margaret Mitchell, often visited her. When Mitchell wrote “Gone With the Wind” (1936), she named selfless genteel Melanie Hamilton, best friend to fiery Scarlett O’Hara, after Sister Melanie.