ex·​cel·​si·​or | \ ik-ˈsel-sē-ər How to pronounce excelsior (audio) , -ȯr \

Definition of excelsior

 (Entry 1 of 2)

: fine curled wood shavings used especially for packing fragile items


Latin adverb
ex·​cel·​si·​or | \ ik-ˈsel-sē-ər How to pronounce excelsior (audio) , eks-ˈkel-sē-ˌȯr \

Definition of excelsior (Entry 2 of 2)

: higher motto of New York

Onward and Upward With Excelsior

In 1778 the state of New York adopted a coat of arms incorporating the motto “Excelsior,” Latin for “Higher.” Decades later, the motto sparked the imagination of the young Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and in 1842 he used it as the title of an allegorical poem of doomed idealism. The poem begins, “The shades of night were falling fast, / As through an Alpine village passed / A youth, who bore, 'mid snow and ice, / A banner with the strange device, / Excelsior!” and follows the young man as he forges upward on his inscrutable mission, ignoring all warnings, before eventually perishing in the snow. It became so popular that, in its wake, the word was adopted as a brand name by numerous businesses; one manufactured wood shavings for use as packing material, and the term is still used for shavings today. But though Longfellow was an eminent linguist, he, like the founders of New York, failed to reflect that the adjective excelsior was perhaps less appropriate to his purpose than the adverb sursum (“upwards”). But the world hasn’t minded--and certainly not the great comic-book artist Stan Lee, who for decades closed his popular magazine columns and speeches with the heartening exclamation.

First Known Use of excelsior


1868, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for excelsior


trade name, from Latin, higher, comparative of excelsus high, from past participle of excellere

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The first known use of excelsior was in 1868

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Cite this Entry

“Excelsior.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/excelsior. Accessed 4 Mar. 2021.

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