Susan Kappel raised an interesting question today: Why is the motto of the state of New York “wood-shavings”? The point is, the motto and only word in Latin on the Great Seal of New York is Excelsior. The packing material state?
Well, no; excelsior is actually the comparative degree of the Latin word excelsus “high”, hence it means “higher”. The superlative is excelsis, as in Gloria in excelsis Deo “Glory to God in the highest”. As Susan very aptly put it: “For packing material it’s a pretty grandiose name!”
The now common noun excelsior was not always a common noun. It originated as a proper noun, the name of the American Excelsior Company, which began manufacturing the curly wood shavings for packing frangible products in 1888. It is still the world’s largest manufacturer of this product but also produces a complete line of packaging materials in addition to being the eponym of excelsior.
Like Kleenex, escalator, and aspirin, American Excelsior’s product dominated the field to the point that referring to it simply as excelsior led to the commonization of the word. Unlike Kimberly-Clarke, who legally convinced publishers to switch to “tissue”, American Excelsior apparently has no complaints over integrating its name into ordinary English since it uses the word excelsior in lower case letters on its website.