ALÉXANDRE / alisander

photo source: wikimedia

aléxandre“, s.f., pronounced [älɛgzɑ̃:dr] 🔊, is the Sarkese name for “alisander” or “alexandres” (Smyrnium olusatrum), an edible flowering plant common in warm coastal regions of Europe, from the Mediterranean to the British Isles. In Sark, it used to be counted among “green vegetables”, grown in pots and eaten in salads by the Old Sarkese.

origin: Anglo-French (obscure) / first recorded for Sarkese: 1970s (PB) / current status in the 21st century: fully preserved, in use

“aléxandre”, in the meaning of alisander, is a feminine countable invariable noun (a she-word that does not change in plural, but may be counted). We may therefore easily say “une aléxandre” or “deuz’aléxandre” etc. It should be noted that the definite artice “la” becomes contracted when in contact with vowel, so “l’aléxandre”. The pronunciation is regular, although we should remember that the nasal “-an-” has to be pronounced long as [ɑ̃:].

The Sarkese “aléxandre” is related to the English “alisandre” and “alexandre”, as well as to the Jersey Norman “alisandre” or “alissandre” and the Guernsey Norman “alisante” and “alisandre” etc., all originating in the Ancient Norman “alisaundre”/”alisandre”. Interestingly, in Jersey, “alisandre” is usually uncountable and may be masculine or feminine. In Sark, however, “aléxandre” is strictly a feminine noun (she, not he) and countable. We therefore don’t usually say “dl’aléxandre”, but “dz’aléxandre” as in “J’manje dz’aléxandre.”, I eat alexanders, or “I’y a dz’aléxandre ki crèse dân l’gárdin.”, There are some alexanders growing in the garden.

On the origin – from ‘holus atrum’ to Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great
photo source: wikimedia

The ancient Gallo-Romance name for the flower, “alisaundre”, did not survive in its original form in most of the languages of Northern France, be it in French, Continental Norman, nor in Sarkese. It was usually replaced either by later forms (e.g. in Sarkese with “aléxandre”) or completely different terms (e.g. in French with “maceron”). Nonetheless, via Old Norman, it has been conserved in the English name “alisander” and possibly even in Old Guernsey Norman as “alisandre”.

The English “alisander” or “alexanders”, the Guernsey Norman “alisandre” and the late Sarkese “aléxandre” clearly refers to an “Alexander”, and there are two popular explenations. One story claims that the plant originated in Macedonia, from where it was brought to the rest of the Mediterrean and Western Europe. Later, the plant was named in honour of the most famous Macedonian ever to live, Alexander the Great. Some claim, however, that the plant was imported to France and England not from Macedonia, but from the ports of Alexandria in Egypt and that the plant wasn’t named directly after Alexander, but after the city which had been named after him.

Neither of these two stories are generally accepted as correct, although the link with Alexander is clear. The most accepted theory today is actually based on an idea of gradual mispronunciation and garbling that resulted in establishing the link.

a mention in a Frankish capitulary

Thanks to Pliny the Elder we are lucky to know that the Romans used to call the plant “holus atrum”, lit. black or dark vegetable. Nonetheless, later on, the name got corrupted in Vulgar Latin of Gaul and by the second half of the first millenium, it was known as “olisatum” or “olusatrum”, as we can tell thanks to one of Frankish capitularies, written after the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 and containing a list of plants. From there a further mispronunciation led, in only a few centuries, to our “alisaundre”, “alisander” and “aléxandre”, intriguingly linking the plant’s name, in the mind of the people, to Alexander the Great, especially when another similar plant, “garden parsley”, was believed to come from Macedonia.

Interestingly, today’s French name “maceron” for alexanders was actually the name for this Macedonian “garden parsley”, which from an Italian corrupted loanword, “macerone” and replaced both the original French “macidoine” and “alisandre”.

In Sarkese, unlike in Guernsey Norman and Jersey Norman (which may have been influenced by the English, originally Norman “alisander”), no old form resembelling “alisaundre” from the ancient Vulgar Latin “olusatrum” has been recorded and surprisingly only the hypothetically later form, based on the link to Alexander the Great, “aléxandre”, is known.

Trivia (and a warning!)

In olden days, “aléxandre” used to be a welcome source of green vegetables for the Sarkese, however, extreme caution is recommended, especially to flower-loving “townies”, as an untrained forager may mistake it with two highly poisonous flowers that grow in Sark too, “pemfê“-hemlock and “pemfê d’yò“, water dropwort. The main difference is that alisanders have green flowers, while the other two Apiaceae plants have white flowers. It is, therefore, recommended for anyone who is new to old Sarkese culinary habits, rather to harvest planted alexanders, than to pick them out in nature.


Citation: NEUDÖRFL, Martin. aléxandre/alisander. In: Sark Norman Dictionary Online [on-line].

Relevant SNDO Entries:

→ back to the WILD FLORA OF SARK section