• excelsior •
Pronunciation: Noun • Hear it!
Part of Speech: ek-sel-si-yêr
Meaning: Long, thin wood shavings used for packing fragile items and stuffing for various soft products, wood wool.
Notes: This word is frequently used in trade names, such as 'Excelsior soap', 'Excelsior Hotel', 'Excelsior accordions' and, occasionally, other names, e.g. 'Excelsior, Wisconsin'. That is because it originated as an adjective in Latin meaning "higher, more elevated, excellent" (see Word History). It is distantly related to excel and excellent. It became the motto of New York State in 1778.
In Play: This word has such a narrow meaning, it offers little in metaphorical usage: "The best packing material for pottery is newspapers if you can't find any excelsior." The best I can do is offer a little-known factoid: "Children's stuffed animals were at one time filled with excelsior."
Word History: The name of the packing material started out as a trade name: Excelsior wood wool. The word itself comes from Latin excelsior "higher", the comparative degree of excelsus "high, elevated, lofty", which is the past participle of excellere "to rise, surpass, be superior". This word is composed of ex "out from/of" + cellere "to rise high, to tower", related to celsus "high, lofty, great", from the Proto-Indo-European root kel-/kol- "to be prominent; hill". This PIE root went into the making of English hill and holm. English colonel was borrowed from Italian colonello from colonna "column of solidiers", which Italian inherited from Latin columna "column", of the same source. (Let us once again thank William Hupy, an old friend and frequenter of the Alpha Agora, for yet another excellent Good Word.)