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:

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.

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    Please can you give some of the surrounding text and give a link? This saves us having to repeat the research you have done. Thanks. (Also a selection of links would be good.) Oct 26, 2015 at 10:42
  • P.S. This is a normal request on the site, e.g. "...Any background research you've tried but wasn't enough to solve your problem..." english.stackexchange.com/help/quality-standards-error Oct 26, 2015 at 10:44
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    Sure. For starters I found that this Google search worked well to just randomly find various usages. By context the phrase seems to mean "something of high quality". I'll build a short list and post it as soon as possible, trying to get ready for work right now.
    – O.M.Y.
    Oct 26, 2015 at 10:46
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    Including the research means posting it in the actual question, and maybe including a snippet. It may seem nothing, it may seem fussy and persnickety but it does make a huge difference. The question looks more interesting if nothing else!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 26, 2015 at 11:37
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    You should have heard of the Palme d'Or. Oct 26, 2015 at 12:13

2 Answers 2


It appears to refer to palm meaning:

  • a symbol of triumph or superiority; also : victory, triumph (M-W)

Ngram shows a number of "contest the palm" usages especially in the 19th century. I think is it is an expression which is just to be taken literally.

Ngram the expression "the palm of victory" was popular during the 19th century.

  • The Lucioda of Mrs. Mountain cannot be surpassed, and Mrs. Bland, in Madge, may be allowed to contest the palm of victory with Mrs. Martyr, who has deservedly acquired great reputation in that character. The Bravura, by Giordani, .. The Monthly Mirror -1802

As for its origin, a palm branch as a symbol of victory dates back to the the earlest civilisations:

  • The palm branch is a symbol of victory, triumph, peace and eternal life originating in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world. The palm (Phoenix) was sacred in Mesopotamian religions, and in ancient Egypt represented immortality. In Judaism, a closed frond of the date palm is part of the festival of Sukkot.
  • A palm branch was awarded to victorious athletes in ancient Greece, and a palm frond or the tree itself is one of the most common attributes of Victory personified in ancient Rome.


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  • 4
    @chaslyfromUK - is my answer wrong or inaccurate? Is it a valid reason to downvote?
    – user66974
    Oct 26, 2015 at 10:52
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    @chaslyfromUK - to me the question was clear, the description given was enough to understand what OP was looking for. Further details may be helpful but not essential. What OP added in the comments just confirms that.
    – user66974
    Oct 26, 2015 at 11:10
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    i don't think this answer deserves a downvote as the phrase "contest the palm" doesn't have multiple meanings that might cause confusion depending on the context. I have seen worse questions than this one and this question is stating at least the OP tried to find a reference.
    – user140086
    Oct 26, 2015 at 11:12
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    @chaslyfromUK - the more an answer is researched, the better, but in this case I didn't have to "guess". The question is clear..19th century usage of the expression "contest the palm" is it idiomatic?
    – user66974
    Oct 26, 2015 at 11:16
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    @chaslyfromUK - unlike "incomprehensible", "contest the palm" is not an expression that you can find on dictionaries. Its usage appears to be peculiar to the 19th century, an important piece of information OP gave. Asking for its meaning and possible idiomatic usage is just fine to me. You and other users may have a different opinion, that is just fine and helpful.
    – user66974
    Oct 26, 2015 at 11:27

Palm (second entry, meaning 3: see slso 2 and 4); merit or victory. Another way of saying it would be 'to vie for the gold medal'.

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