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Dr. Goodword
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Postby Dr. Goodword » Tue Aug 15, 2017 10:18 pm

• 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.)
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David Myer
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Joined: Wed Nov 11, 2009 3:21 am
Location: Melbourne

Re: Excelsior

Postby David Myer » Wed Aug 16, 2017 7:14 pm

Well, well, well. What a funny lot the Americans are.

This is an extraordinary one.

Excelsior means higher. There can be no question of that. So saying it means wood wool seems preposterous to an Anglo. It's like saying ford means car and no longer a place where people can wade across a creek.

On the basis of its origin in the new meaning, it could equally as easily mean soap or hotel. But it seems Americans have picked up just one of the trade names.

Very odd. I put it to a wordsmith friend of mine with a lovely singing voice, and he responded thus:

"Extraordinary indeed.

It’s a difficult one for the chorister, since ‘Hosanna in Excelsis’ is a text very frequently encountered, but every conductor requires different pronunciation -


And on it went. Most confusing.

But wood shavings? Really?"


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