I recently ran across an odd phrase—"contest the palm"—and after doing some Google searches found it used by a number of individuals in England during the 1800s but I cannot seem to find it defined anywhere. I am extremely interested in finding its origins if possible.
Here is the text I ran across first:
"At the same time were produced, from the same university, the two great poets, Cowley and Milton, of dissimilar genius, of opposite principles; but concurring in the cultivation of Latin poetry, in which the English, till their works and [Thomas] May's poem appeared, seemed unable to contest the palm with any other of the lettered nations."
. -- The Works of Samuel Johnson, LL.D..: Lives of the Poets (1825)
Googling: "contest the palm" england provides this example of usage (third result)
In biography the French are unrivalled, in autobiography the Germans are equally so. In some species of poetry the Germans contest the palm with us: in mathematical industry, and historical research, they are greatly our superiors;
The Rural Life of England, 1838
A number of similar examples can be found here (some of the examples can be clicked on to see expanded context) with references to:
- "contest the palm of original genius"
-- Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880)
- "contest the palm of temper"
-- The Heir of Redclyffe (1853)
- "contest the palm of literary precedence"
-- History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella V3 (1837)
Searches in Google found these other usages:
- "contest the palm of eloquence"
-- The Life of Sir Samuel Romilly, V2 (1812)
- "contest the palm of rifle shooting"
-- The People's Press, and Monthly Historical Newspaper, V2 (1848)
- "contest the palm of beauty"
-- The Chien D'or: The Golden Dog; a Legend of Quebec (1877)
- "contest the palm of science"
-- The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, Emperor of the French, V2 (1828)
- "contest the palm of agreeableness and popularity"
-- Chamber's Book of Days (1869)
- "contest the palm of productive capacity with the slave"
-- Richmond's Daily Dispatch (1861)
- "contest the palm of might or majesty"
-- The New York Times (1883)
However, despite these many usages I can find no explicit reference to the term in any dictionary or encyclopedia, no etymology of any kind, and it seems to have appeared in print first in 1776, and remained in widespread usage for more than a century.
I do wonder if this might be a colloquial phrase that was brought over from a non-English usage (perhaps from French, which was the international language at this point in history) but my French is not sufficient to be able to research this.
Still, it would be nice to find out more about the origins of this phrase.