Note about the history of brèdes (Michel Chauvet)

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Note about the history of brèdes
Chauvet, Michel, 1998.
Petits Propos Culinaires, 59: 41-43.

In spite of the commentaries made in PPC 56, the history of the word brède is no mystery. It is well documented in current historical and etymological dictionaries. It comes from Portuguese bredo, and the word is to be found in Spanish bledo and French blette, and the Italian derivative biedone (Meyer-Lübke, REW ; Corominas and Pascual, DCECH). This Romanic word comes from Latin blitum, taken itself from Greek bliton. The Greek word is of uncertain origin, but perhaps related to German Melde and Russian lebeda, which would incline to a Indo-European origin (Chantraine, DELG). It still exists in modern Greek vliti.

Through the different periods and languages, the word has maintained a constant meaning of « green leaves that are eaten boiled » (Europeans would add « as spinach »), but it may refer to different plant species, according to their availability in particular countries.

In Latin, André (1985) stresses that its main meaning is Amaranthus blitum, this scientific name showing that early botanists knew about it. This amaranth, which has been known as a vegetable in the Mediterranean area at least since the antiquity, is now included in Amaranthus lividus. Other species have been named blitum in Latin : Smyrnium olusatrum and above all the leafy forms (spinach beets) of Beta vulgaris, called blitum nigrum. This last species was also called beta nigra, beta being the name of beets. The Latins confused the two words beta and blitum, creating the hybrid form bleta. This explains why the French use blette more than bette to designate the modern Swiss chard, which is a form of Beta vulgaris with thickened petiole and midrib.

In Greek, Spanish and Portuguese, the word has kept its meaning of Amaranthus lividus. It is logical that Portuguese sailors, who were the first Europeans to establish settlements around Africa and in all the Indian Ocean, applied the name bredo to any kind of tropical leaves being eaten boiled. Brède is now a common word of the regional French and the French creole of the Indian Ocean, and it may have been borrowed by Malagasy from the French, and not the reverse.

Far from being an exception, this way of diffusion of names (and plants) is also well documented. Many names in the French of the Indian Ocean come from Portuguese. The Portuguese imported the aubergine or eggplant from Europe under the name beringela, which evolved into French bringelle and Indo-English brinjal. They imported tropical American plants from Brazil with Brazilian names, such as chouchou (chayote, Sechium edule) and lalo (okra, Abelmoschus esculentus).

As far as Cape Malays are concerned, I ignore which language they speak, but what I am sure is that bredies is an Afrikaans name for a « meat dish with vegetable, onion and chilli, the vegetable being usually a Rumex » (Boshoff and Nienaber, 1967). Afrikaans (a Dutch creole which is one of the official languages of South Africa) has other plant names coming from Portuguese, such as sjoe-sjoe or soe-soe (Sechium edule) and mielie (from milho, maize, Zea mays).

As a conclusion, may I invite readers of PPC to go to libraries specializing in linguistics (rather than hypothetical embassies) when they want to consult etymological dictionaries? If PPC can dedicate some more lines to this question, I include hereafter the references of the dictionaries I used, which are classical ones for the languages concerned. I can also offer to contribute to the solution of similar problems about plant names, as this is one of my fields of research, as you may have understood.

  • André, Jacques, 1985. Les noms de plantes dans la Rome antique. Paris, Belles Lettres. XVI-333 p.
  • Boshoff, S.P.E. and Nienaber, G.S., 1967. Afrikaanse etimologieë. Pretoria, Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns. 741 p.
  • Chantraine, Pierre, 1968-1980. Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque. Histoire des mots. Paris, Klincksieck. 2 vol, XVIII-1368 p.
  • Corominas, Joan and Pascual, José, 1980-91. Diccionario crítico etimológico castellano e hispánico. Madrid, Gredos. 6 vol., 938 + 985 + 903 + 907 + 850 + 1047 p.
  • Meyer-Lübke, W., 1972. Romanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch. 5th ed. Heidelberg, C. Winter. XXXIV-1204 p.

Annexe : list of brèdes included in Baillon H., 1876. Dictionnaire de botanique, vol. 1. Paris. In parentheses are my comments to the list.

  • brède d’Angole, brède gandole, brède tali : Basella rubra (now B. alba).
  • brède du Bengale, brède de l’Inde : Chenopodium sp., Beta vulgaris, Amaranthus oleraceus.
  • brède chevrette : Illecebrum sessile (now Alternanthera sessilis).
  • brède chou caraïbe (also brède songe) : young leaves of Colocasia esculenta.
  • brède cresson : Nasturtium officinale.
  • brède de France : Spinacia oleracea.
  • brède giraumon (also brède citrouille) : shoots of Cucurbita pepo.
  • brède glaciale : Mesembryanthemum crystallinum.
  • brède malabare : Amaranthus blitum (now A. lividus), A. spinosus, Atriplex bengalensis, Corchorus olitorius.
  • brède malgache (also brède mafane) : Spilanthes oleracea.
  • brède morelle (also brède martin, according to varieties) : Solanum nigrum.
  • brède morongue (also brède mouroungue, brède médaille) : Moringa aptera (now M. oleifera).
  • brède moutarde : Sinapis indica.
  • brède piment : shoots of Capsicum spp.
  • brède puante : Cleome pentaphylla.
  • brède de Rio : Phytolacca decandra.

More brèdes are to be found in Marie-France et Irvin, 1990. Le grand livre de la cuisine réunionnaise. Saint-André, Océan Ed. (Identifications are mine) :

  • brède chouchou : Sechium edule
  • brède lastron : Sonchus oleraceus
  • brède manioc : Manihot esculenta
  • brède noire : ?
  • brède pariétaire : Parietaria officinalis
  • brède patate : Ipomoea batatas (or I. aquatica ?)


After Michel Chauvet had contributed such a wealth of information to the discussion about brèdes, it seemed churlish to address further questions to him. However, we did send him the following two queries:

  • (a) Were we right in thinking that he regards the Afrikaans bredie(s) as coming from the same source as brèdes?
  • (b) Did he (presumably following Boshoff and Nienaber) take the name bredies to be spelled th us, with a terminal 's'? In a culinary context we find it referred to as bredie in the singular, notably in Leipoldt (the best written source we have from S Africa who devotes two pages to the subject and to listing the various kinds of bredie with which he was acquainted).

He has sent the following response, which seems to point towards some further research which perhaps somebody else, perhaps a reader in South Africa, can do:

My mention of bredies in South Africa has Boshoff and Nienaber as its only source. lt says that bredies come from the Portuguese bredos. But this is marginal for my paper, and you seem to have more information, showing that it is perhaps more complicated. So don't take this as granted. We would need to know more. For example, what was the influence of French Protestants in South Africa, and did they have contact with the French of the Indian Ocean? I have no idea. On the other hand, why is this usage restricted to the Cape Malays, and which influences did this group of people receive before and after settling in South Africa?