• stem-winder •
stem-wain-dêr • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A keyless watch that is wound up by a permanent stem connected to the spring. 2. Something first-rate, something excellent in its class, a doozy. 3. A rousing, energetic speech.
Notes: This word has been around since the 1850s, referring to any mechanical device with a spring that is wound by a stem rather than by a key. In referring to antique watches, it is still used in this sense. In fact, the word has given us a verb, to stem-wind. The only other relatives of today's Good Word are the adjective and action noun, both of which are stem-winding.
In Play: Our word today seems to specialize in rousing speeches: "President Obama is known for giving stem-winders on the stump (campaign trail) that attract tens of thousands." We are not limited to this usage, though: "Bunsen Berner is a stem-winder in the lab: he can concoct every kind of compound known to man."
Word History: Does anyone remember when we had to wind up our watches? Before wrist watches, even pocket watches, clocks ran on springs that had to be wound periodically with a key. Since keys are among the items we most frequently lose, that design came with certain frustrations. In the 1850s a stem-wound watch appeared on the Swiss watch market. This watch was wound by a stem with a knurled cap on top connected to the spring. To wind these new-fangled watches and clocks you only had to twist the stem now and then. The new watches were a sensation among those wealthy enough to purchase one, and they quickly developed the reputation of being the best of the best. As result, the term stem-winder came to mean something of top quality, the very best. Even though timepieces today have no springs at all, the word stem-winder still bears the reputation of the original Swiss masterpiece. (Gratitude today is owed the man with more double consonants in his name than anyone I know, Ed Pellicciotti, for suggesting today's stem-winder of a Good Word.)
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