Arnold Schwarzenegger is scheduled to speak at the Republican Convention tonight, and some commentators believe his speech has "the potential to be the GOP's answer to Democratic rising star Barack Obama's stemwinder in Boston." But why are some speeches called stemwinders? And is the term a compliment or an insult?
Careless writers sometimes use the word to disparage a speech that drags on too long (e.g., "the Bill Clinton of 1988, who gave a tedious stemwinder … that has gone down in the books as the worst nominating speech in recent memory"). It's easy to see why a lengthy speech would be referred to as a "stemwinder"—when you're listening to one, it feels like time has stopped, and you may check to see if your watch needs resetting. But used correctly, the word describes a rousing speech.
The term dates back to the middle of the 19th century, when the stem-winding watch came into vogue. The newfangled timepiece was a vast improvement over its predecessor, the key-wound watch, because the mechanism for setting it was a stem actually attached to the watch, rather than a key that was easily and frequently misplaced. This technological advance was so widely appreciated that, by the end of the 1800s, the term stemwinder had taken on the figurative meaning of "excellent" or "outstanding," or, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "a person or thing that is first rate. …"
Even early on, the phrase was used to describe great orators. Michael Quinion of World Wide Words found a reference dating to 1880, in the Daily Gazette of Colorado Springs: "Dr. Reynolds will have some big stories to tell when he returns from Europe. He will then be, more than ever, the great 'stem-winder' of the west." But the word had myriad other applications. Jack London, in his 1909 novel Martin Eden, used the term to describe a knockout headache: "Gee, but it's a stem-winder," one character says. "Can hardly see." And in the novel Bunch Grass, published in 1913, author Horace Annesley Vachell's characters toast the man who convinced them it was better to drink whisky than water:
"The Perfessor's a stem-winder, an' no mistake," said Pete. "Let's drink his health—onst."
They did so—twice.
These days, of course, "stemwinder" is no longer used to describe headaches or professors; although it's not clear why the wider usage fell out of favor, the term is used exclusively to describe an excellent speech.
Explainer thanks Michael Quinion of World Wide Words.