English is an acquisitive language. Over the centuries, it’s borrowed words from nearly every tongue on Earth, enabling us to speak, say, a bit of Hindi, French, or Dutch every day (bungalow, mustard, caboose, respectively).
We owe a linguistic debt of gratitude to the Arabic language, which has loaned us such indispensable words as algebra, coffee, magazine, lilac and alcohol.
Alfalfa, another in that roster of Arabic-derived terms, is the word for a hay crop native to southwestern Asia. Its cultivation spread to Greece in about 490 BC, from there to Rome and western Europe.
When the plant was introduced to Spain in the 13th century, its Arabic name was adopted by the Spanish, who eventually brought both the word and the plant alfalfa to the Americas to feed the horses imported from Europe.
The term was first printed in the English-speaking world in the 1764 London publication Essays on Husbandry: “Alfalfa, whose luxuriant herbage feeds the lab’ring ox, mild sheep, and fiery steeds.” Charles Darwin spelled the word alfarfa in his 1839 publication Voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle.
One of its first New World citations is found in the American magazine Harper’s New Monthly of August 1868: “Our mules pricked up their ears, and with visions of infinite alfalfa before them broke into a lively trot.” Its appearance in italics indicates that it was then still considered a foreign word.
Now, a century and a half later, alfalfa is a common English term and used every day here in the American West, where it’s the most important hay crop for livestock. Look the word up in any etymological dictionary, and you’ll see its history in miniature: in its original Arabic language, alfalfa means “fresh fodder for horses.”