The term Melanesia is a partly geographic, partly cultural referent to a subregion of the island Pacific that has become very much part of ordinary descriptive language along with terms categorising other parts of the Pacific island world, namely Polynesia and Micronesia. Yet Melanesia is much more than a descriptor. The term has been loaded with significance in a variety of ways, carrying with it both negative and positive connotations. This paper provides an overview of the way in which the idea of Melanesia has developed, from its origins in racialist ethnography through to the postcolonial period. It suggests that, although a number of scholars now find the term problematic because of its historical associations with European exploration and colonisation and the racism embedded in these, Melanesia has acquired a positive meaning and relevance for many of those to whom the term applies.