Delving into the etymology – origins – of a word can tell you a huge amount, not just about the meaning and how it may have evolved over time, but about earlier peoples’ relationships with, and attitudes towards, the thing or concept that the word describes. The word ‘alfalfa’ refers to a plant from the legume family, Medicago sativa, which is an important forage crop used to feed livestock in many countries around the world. It is commonly harvested, dried, and made into hay.
Shy of being able to travel back in time and to another part of the world, looking at the etymology of the word alfalfa can give us a rich insight into humankind’s first relationship with this plant, and its importance in their everyday lives. If you’re ready, let’s go.
The Short History of Alfalfa in English
Alfalfa isn’t widely used in English, except to those of us interested livestock and what they eat. The first known use of the word in English was around 1791, so it doesn’t have an exceptionally long history here either. This is likely because the alfalfa plant is native to warmer, temperate climates, and so earlier speakers of English simply would not have known about the plant or had cause to create their own name for it.
This explains why alfalfa is what is known as a loanword, simply meaning it has been shared from another language. Loanwords are interesting because they tell us that something was once unknown in one culture, yet so important to another that they literally gave their word for it too. The word for alfalfa is also incredibly similar in many global languages – which tells us that at some point in history, people thought so highly of the plant that they shared it with every new person they met.
Where Did the Word Alfalfa Come From?
In this case, English has ‘borrowed’ the word from Spanish. The Spanish word alfalfa is itself a modification of the Arabic al-faṣfaṣa. From here, we can trace it back to the Aramaic word aspastā. This in turn came from the Akkadian aspastu, which was passed down from the Old Median aspāstiš. From here, we can trace it back to the Proto-Iranian HacwaHastiš. This word – and we’re at the last step, finally – is a combination of from Proto-Iranian *Hácwah (meaning horse) + Proto-Indo-European h₁ed-tis (related to eating).
The Proto-Indo-European language, for those interested, is thought to have been spoken roughly around 4500 to 2500 B.C. Consider how quickly and how dramatically words can change meaning (think of how describing something as ‘wicked’ just a century ago would have called for holy water, yet today it’s broadly positive). Yet 6,500 years on, alfalfa still holds its original meaning of horse feed. What we can take from that is that, even in the earliest days of civilisation, humankind knew the exceptional value this plant offers to horses.
Nowadays, we can place alfalfa under a microscope and understand why it has the highest feeding value of all common hay crops. Science tells us that its high protein content and highly digestible fibre make it an excellent choice for healthy equestrian nutrition. The people who spoke Proto-Indo-European wouldn’t have had our labs or equipment, but they would have had a close bond with their livestock, and seen first-hand the positive impact that this plant has on horses’ health.