Q From Alan Bloom: I recently heard — not for the first time — a vigorous speech described as a real stemwinder. Any thoughts on the origin or significance of the term?
A If you were in the US in the years just after the Civil War, the latest and neatest thing to possess was a stem-winding watch. This had been perfected by a French maker, Adrien Philippe, while working in Geneva in the 1840s for a business known today as Patek Phillippe. Before his invention, watches were wound like clocks, using a key. This was an awkward procedure and wise watch owners kept the key on their fob chain to be sure of not losing it.
M Philippe added a knurled knob attached to a rod (or stem), which was permanently connected to the spring mechanism, making it much easier to wind. Hence stem-winding watch or stem-winder (this was the US name: in Britain it was called a keyless watch). The idea of winding a watch at all now seems odd to most people, accustomed as we are to possess one with a battery or other energy-providing mechanism that doesn’t require us to think about it from month to month. But in the second half of the nineteenth century, a stem-winder watch was state-of-the-art, something to boast about.
As a result, by the end of the nineteenth century the term stem-winder had taken on a figurative meaning of something first-rate or excellent. As a further extension it meant something powerful or persuasive, and became attached in particular to somebody who was an effective public speaker or impassioned talker. Later still it was used of the speech itself, if it were entertaining and tub-thumping oratory. Various of these senses were used by writers of the latter part of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, such as Mark Twain, Jack London and O Henry.
Most of these senses have vanished, just as the literal sense of stem-winder has gone outside horological circles, but in the US, the single remaining meaning in the dictionaries is that of a persuasive and rousing political speech.
But, as several subscribers pointed out, there’s another meaning, one that the lexicographers don’t seem yet to have noticed. The word is now used on occasion to imply that it is a speech or sermon so long, interminable and boring that it feels as though one needs to wind one’s watch before it ends. This would seem to be an interesting example of a kind of folk etymology, in which a term that has become divorced from its roots and its context takes on a new sense by being analysed afresh.
The term is still quite common (a newspaper database search found more than 100 examples in the past ten years). Most use it in the traditional sense, but not all. An example of the new sense appeared in the Washington Post on 10 July 2001:
The race is, in some respects, a giant popularity contest, and Hoyer’s somewhat ponderous speaking style and white-bread image may be a drawback. “The question for Steny is, does he know when to stop?” said one ally, referring to Hoyer’s stemwinder speeches.
Another interesting point is that stemwinder is also used in some of these examples to refer to a person, particularly someone who is the energising focus of some activity (the mainspring, perhaps?) or the person who is giving the rousing speech that is the more usual sense of a stemwinder.
Altogether, a more complex and interesting term than one might think from casually encountering it.