RUSHVILLE – Lately, I have discovered that I’m more and more fascinated by words and phrases. Learning a new word or a new phrase has always been a hobby of sorts, but discovering the origins of words and phrases has moved from becoming just a curiosity to a fascination. Take, for example, the word “stem-winder.” Where on earth did that word originate and what on earth does it mean? Even more interesting, what’s become of it?

At the moment I’m reading an absolutely fabulous book entitled “The Bully Pulpit.” Its subhead reads, “Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft , and the Golden Age of Journalism” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, published in 2013.

If I’m not mistaken, the word “stem-winder” appears somewhere in the first 180 pages, which is all the farther I’ve read in this rather massive 750 page tome! Now, within the context of the book, if that’s where I saw the word, “stem-winder” refers to a rousing or impassioned speech, as in, “Boy, that speech was a real stem-winder!” But where does that world come from? Here’s what the “World Wide Words” website has to say about it: “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 watch maker, Adrien Philippe, while working in Geneva in the 1840s for a business known as Patek Phillipe. Before his invention, watches were wound like clocks with 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.” Going on, “M [Monsieur] Philippi added a knurled knob attached to a rod (or stem), which was permanently connected to a spring mechanism, making it much easier to wind. Hence stem-winding or stem-winder.” The idea of winding a watch, either by key or stem probably seems strange to most people used to battery-powered watches, or watches powered by some of means, that don’t require winding every month!

By the end of the 1800s the term stem-winder had taken on a totally different meaning as something outstanding or powerful. Today, it refers to a “rousing political speech.” When I was kid, my first wristwatch was the type that had to be wound by a stem on top. To re-set the time required pulling up on the stem and manually adjusting the hands with the stem to set the correct the time.

My wife, Connie, inherited a silver-plated pocket watch from her grandfather that is the type referred to above that had to be wound with a key. It is large and way too heavy to be worn on someone’s wrist. It, therefore, is referred to as a pocket watch! It was carried meant to be carried in the vest pocket of a man’s suit – back in the day when most men wore suits with vests underneath their jackets. Pocket watches weren’t just made for men, incidentally. Smaller versions were carried by women as well, but they were usually worn either like a necklace on a slide chain the length of which could be adjusted or attached by a lapel pin.

Even before the pocket watch, the way most people kept time was by looking at the clock in the tower of the county courthouse, exactly like the one we have in the tower of the Rush County Courthouse! The other type of timepiece was the style was commonly known as a grandfather clock, which was operated by two or more weights which made the internal mechanism work. If the weights were allowed to reach the bottom of the cabinet the clock would stop and the weights had to be pulled back up to the top by their chains and the time would have to be reset. That’s a long way around the barn, as they say, to conceptualize the word “stem-winder,” but I hope it was worth the trip.

Interestingly enough, a couple of words even popped up in the definition of stem-winder to arouse curiosity. What, for instance, is a “fob”? And what does the word “knurled” mean?

Well, a watch “fob” was the slender chain or ribbon attached to a pocket watch that hung out of the vest pocket of a man’s suit to make it easier to extract the watch from the vest pocket and also to make it easier not to lose the watch! The other end of the fob was often inserted into one of the button holes in the vest to secure it. The word “fob” itself, according to Webopedia, comes from the German word Fuppe, which means, interestingly enough, pocket!

All right, then! How about the meaning of the word “knurled”? According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, (which has existed since 1828, so it must be accurate), a knurl is essentially a small knob with ridges cut into the surface which when used to describe something like the knob on a stem-winding watch made it easier to grip to wind the watch more easily. The origin of the word “knurl” comes from the Middle English which refers to a knot in a piece of wood. Knurls went out of fashion, along with the pocket watch when wrist watches were invented around the time of World War I.

By the way, “Middle English” was the language spoken in England from about 1100 to 1500, sometimes referred to as the Middle Ages – imagine that! It was not at all like the English spoken in England today and even less like the English spoken in Rush County, but that’s a story for another day.

That’s —30— for this week.

Retired Rush County businessman Paul W. Barada may be contacted via this publication at

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