Most researchers agree that the word spice stems from Middle English and is derived from the Old French term, espice, which in turn evolved from the Latin noun, species (meaning sort or kind). The term herb, however, reached English through Latin, herba (grass) and Old French, erbe.
Through the centuries both general and narrow definitions have been applied. Some have considered spices in general terms such as: “aromatic or pungent vegetable substances used to flavor food,” “dried plant products used primarily for seasoning purposes,” or “substances used in cooking to add flavor, usually a powder or seed.” Purists, however, have taken more narrow definitions and suggested that the word spice should be restricted to: “dried parts of a plant other than leaves” (i.e. bark, berry, flower, fruit, resin, root, seed, stem, tuber, or twig) while the term herb should be applied only to leaves.
Others have supported a more integrative use of both by suggesting that the definition of herb be “any plant with leaves, seeds, or flowers used for flavoring food, medicine, or perfume.” Still others insert geographical considerations into their definition with the suggestion that spices are items are those products that initially grew in tropical and subtropical regions, whereas herbs originated in temperate climes.
So what are the differences between spices and herbs? Perhaps the answer is best left to those who enjoy such debates and perhaps the best definition actually is one of legend, reportedly coined by Charlemagne: [an herb is] the friend of physicians and the praise of cooks.
Each herb or spice has a story, one that reflects the distance traveled from its ancient geographical origins, from wild to domesticated forms, and ultimately to culinary, cultural, medical, and social uses in the 21st century. Herbs and spices have taken these winding historical paths and the journeys reflect a myriad of uses by widely different cultures as they ultimately have reached our kitchens, serving plates, and palates. Documents reveal their integration and uses in cultural, magical, and religious practices.
Along the way herbs and spices have been modified: dried and salted; chopped and ground; cooled, heated, processed, and packaged. In earlier years herbs and spices were transported by camel, horse, mule, and human labor; more recently by airplane, ship, train, and truck. At their terminal destinations merchants display herbs and spices in bins, canisters, jars, and tins; consumers browse among the bags, racks, and shelves and make selections based upon culinary, health, and social needs.
When purchased they reach our homes and shelters; are stashed in cupboards, pantries, and refrigerators where they await decisions to use in recipes or as medicines. What would family food be like without incorporation of herbs and spices? Children watch meal-time preparations and their senses are stimulated by wonderful aromas. With senses aroused herbs and spices become engrained in personal memory to be passed on to future generations.
Little attention is given to the origin and long histories of herbs and spices. This is unfortunate for to study these flavor items is to explore, examine, and understand human culture and history. Herbs and spices are documented in exploration accounts; descriptions of secret trade routes developed to maintain economic and culinary advantage; and the oral traditions and written reports from shamans and traditional healers reveal their uses to treat ills and infirmities.