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shameless pleading

Stemwinder

Cranked up.

Dear Word Detective: I’m reading the papers here on Tsunami Tuesday and I keep seeing this great word, “stemwinder,” referring to a particularly stirring speech. I looked up its origin (Merriam-Webster lists it as “stem-winder”) and saw that it refers to watches, of all things, but wasn’t able to find how this term came to be associated mainly with political speeches. Can you ascertain how that connection came about? — Rick Freyer.

“Stemwinder” is one of those grand old words that have traveled so far from their origins that nearly all traces of their beginnings have faded from popular culture. The culprit in this case is not merely the passage of time (which, after all, has been passing since about day one), but the accelerating pace of technological progress. In many such cases, the advent of the new and shiny has led to the coining of “retronyms” as a way of distinguishing the old and moldy from their more modern equivalents. Thus we find ourselves specifying “broadcast TV,” “film camera,” “brick-and-mortar store,” and the like. But in the case of “stemwinder,” if there were a modern equivalent to its source, it would be as irrelevant as a digital butter churn.

It all goes back to the humble watch. Before there were electronic battery-powered wrist watches, before there were manually wound (or self-winding) mechanical watches, before there were even watches worn on one’s wrist, there were pocket watches. And if you go way back, those pocket watches were wound with a separate tiny key. This may sound cute, but it was a major drag, because the process was awkward and the key was easily lost. So in 1842, when the French watchmaker Adrien Philippe (co-founder of Patek-Philippe) invented a “keyless” watch that was wound by turning its “stem” (a knurled knob on the side of its case, today called the “crown”), it was such an improvement that it won Philippe a Gold Medal at the French Industrial World’s Fair.

It’s hard to imagine today, but the new “stemwinder” watch became an instant public sensation of almost delirious intensity, the iPod of its day. It was so popular, in fact, that within a few years the term “stemwinder” entered the lexicon as a synonym for anything excellent and exciting. By the end of the 19th century, “stemwinder” was being used to mean, first, an energetic person, then a rousing public speaker, and finally an especially inspiring speech itself.

Interestingly, as the public memory faded of how revolutionary the “stemwinder” invention had been, the word took on the slightly more focused sense of a speech which not only impresses but galvanizes a crowd to action, perhaps by analogy to a watch spring being wound up (“After all the calls to unity, ..a stemwinder in the old tradition from Hubert Humphrey,… Sargent Shriver was formally nominated for Vice-President,” T.H. White, 1974). This is the sense in which we use “stemwinder” today.

16 comments to Stemwinder

  • PF

    Wow! I thought it meant a speech so boring that you resorted to winding your watch to pass the time! What do you know.

  • Tom Wolfe

    I’m with PF — or pretty close, anyway. I thought it meant a speech went on soooo long that you had to wind your watch or it might run down before the speech was over.

    And all along I thouight I was so superior to the people I thought were using the word in the wrong way.

  • Bob Dobolina

    I’m not buying it. This sounds like folk etymology to me. I’m going with PF and Tom Wolfe on this one.

  • Me too. And I wrote a kid’s book about (and called) TELLING TIME.

    OTOH… it makes no reference to stems, to winding or to speeches than never end.

    Jules

  • JN

    3M’s newsletter is called the Stemwinder. I gotta think they researched it out before naming the publication.

  • Cranky Old Batt

    I also agree, from usage, that a stemwinder is an exceptional, not boring or overlong, speech. Heretofore, I thought it referred to the speaker, however.

  • Bob, Tom, and Jules:
    With due deference to your epistemological instincts, I’ve been familiar with this term for many years and have never encountered it in any context other than that consistent with “rabble rousing”, “barn burner” and similar expressions. On the other hand the interpretation you suggest – so boring as to require a listener to wind his watch – seems terribly contrived and unimaginative, not the kind of thing that would engage the popular imagination enough to coin a new meaning. I’m going with Word Detective (as well as a number of other websites which cited the same origin.

  • Peter McCrossin

    I’ve never heard of this term before, and people here (Melbourne, Australia) reckon I know a word or two. I checked “stemwinder” out after reading about a Michelle Obama speech. Happy to go with the Word Detective on this one.

  • Joe L.

    Today, from Moscow, the NY Times’ Ellen Barry reported that, “Putin strode out in a parka and delivered a ferocious stemwinder.” And millions of people Googled “stemwinder.” Great word!

  • CaptainKirk

    I attend a lot of meetings, some more interesting than others and
    some speakers make their points using way too much time with
    way too many words. If there’s no wall clock I find myself trying
    to sneak a look at my watch. I say “sneak” because it would not
    be polite or politically correct to show lack of rapt attention.

    My past take on “stem winder” was that while the rabble were
    being roused by a speaker, the more hip guys were looking at
    their pocket watches and pretending to wind them to cover up
    their boredom.

    Word Detective’s version seems to come closer to the actual
    way it is and has been used.

    Word Detectives take on it reflects actual current usage whatever it’s origins.

  • Patty

    The first time I heard the word stemwinder was from my grandfather. My son was a very active and entertaining little tike and my grandfather would call him a stemwinder when he spent time with him. He was a very gifted journalist and continued writing until his death at 92. He passed away four years ago. Energetic and excellent would be the best definition for this word.

  • A stemwinder is the final speech on the program, the one so powerful that it yanks the audience to its feet and leaves it cheering as hard as it can. It’s the equivalent of a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth and the winning Hail Mary in football. So let’s talk about “truck.” It once referred to a load of produce that a farmer was taking to market. Only after a long time did the word get used to refer to the vehicle that brought the produce to market. Ever hear of “truck farms”? The term refers to produce farms, as distinct from farms that grow fields of grain.

  • Do they still call them truck farms? When driving to the New Jersey shore in the 50′s and 60′s we would see the signs. We were told it was because trucks would come to take their produce to market.

    Speaking of truck, where did the expression “I’ll have no truck with you” originate?

  • Steve Grant

    Maybe it meant excellent once, but when’s the last time that you heard anyone use “stemwinder” to refer to anything as being excellent. I say that it means ‘long and boring’, and is usually tied in with the term, “rubber chicken circuit”, where such speeches are frequently given.

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