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.